By Aryeh Neier
The most important contribution of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly 60 years ago on Dec. 10, 1948, was to assert a powerful idea: Rights are universal. Rights do not depend on membership of a particular community or citizenship in a certain state. They do not derive from a social contract.
Rather, because rights are universal, they are attributes of all human beings. Indeed, they are part of what makes us human. Each of us may enjoy rights. Those who exercise power may do so only in limited ways. The limits are set by rights.
It is, of course, possible to trace the concept of universal rights at least as far back as 17th century English thinking about natural law. The concept was partially embraced in the French Declaration of Rights of 1789 and, to a greater extent, in Thomas Jefferson’s language in the same era about “inalienable rights.” It also shaped the thinking of those in England who led the anti-slavery struggle of the second half of the 18th century, the first human rights movement.
Yet the Universal Declaration marked a giant step forward, as the world’s governments — with abstentions from the Soviet bloc states, Saudi Arabia and apartheid South Africa, but with no votes in opposition — agreed that rights should take precedence over state power.
One way to think about the six decades that have elapsed since the adoption of the Universal Declaration is as a struggle to implement its promises.
For a long time, it was a losing struggle, marked especially by the spread of both communist and anti-communist tyrannies.
Things began to change in the 1980s with the fall of military dictatorships in Latin America and in such East Asian countries as the Philippines and South Korea, and with the growing number of people engaged in the struggle for human rights in the Soviet empire. By the end of the decade, many Soviet bloc regimes had collapsed. A factor that contributed to their demise was a shift in thinking that transformed the conflict between East and West away from one that emphasized economic systems. Instead, it was the contrast between totalitarianism and respect for rights that completely discredited the oppressive regimes linked to Moscow and helped to bring them down. South Africa’s largely peaceful transition to a multi-racial democracy in the early 1990s was a further advance for rights.
But the last decade of the last century was also indelibly stained by ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia and genocide in Rwanda, and during the current decade the tide has seemed to turn against the rights cause. Powerful states such as China and Russia are not limiting themselves to authoritarian rule at home, but are also supporting those in other countries engaged in similar practices. The same is true of lesser powers such as Iran and Venezuela.
Moreover, the US has been squandering much of its capacity to promote human rights internationally. In responding to the terrorist attacks on its own soil on Sept. 11, 2001, the US has resorted to such measures as prolonged indefinite detention without charges, trials before military commissions lacking due process safeguards and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees, including torture.
Other governments and intergovernmental bodies have not filled the gap left by the US. The new UN Human Rights Council has so far disappointed those who hoped that it would be a more principled and effective body than its discredited predecessor, the UN Human Rights Commission. The EU has been a positive force in promoting rights in those countries aspiring to membership, but it has not demonstrated a capacity to exercise influence worldwide.