raceAhead: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Turns 70

December 11, 2018, 3:51 PM UTC
A group of school children sit outside, gathered around a large poster printed with the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Photograph taken of children of the United Nations International Nursery School looking at a poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Dated 20th Century. (Photo by: Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty Images)
Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images

Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an enduring document that details in 30 articles the basic, fundamental rights that all human beings should enjoy and that all governments should protect.

It opens definitively: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

It is also the anniversary of the time when the world community agreed nearly unanimously on a notion that would potentially affect the policies of all. Not a single member of the newly created United Nations dared to vote nay.

The delegates working on December 10, 1948 had two world wars, and a new nuclear reality encoded in their experiences, and the world felt as close to a terrible end as it had in modern times.

“That so many of the rights remain unachieved on its 70th anniversary testifies to the boundless idealism of the document’s drafters,” says NPR’s Tom Gjelten.

It is an extraordinary list, mostly gender neutral, and deeply considered. I’ve paraphrased some of my favorites:

No one should be held in slavery or servitude. No one should be subjected to torture. Everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries. No one should be denied access to marriage or forced into marriage. Everyone has the right to due process. Everyone has the right to move freely in their country, think freely, worship freely. Everyone has the right to participate freely in a democratic government. Everyone has the right to work, to own property, to adequate housing, nourishment, and health care, and to have social protections against hardship.

We still have work to do.

I agree with Harvard professor Stephen Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now, that there has been great progress in the human experience to celebrate. “In a lot of measures, yeah, things are bad now, but they were even worse before,” he told a gathering of CEOs at the Fortune CEO Initiative conference in San Francisco last June. “War and homicide and rape and violence against children are deplorable problems now,” said Pinker, “but they were even worse a few decades ago.” His warning: plot data over time, to better assess true risk and probability. It is excellent advice.

And yet, it is not possible to observe this anniversary without acknowledging the human data points who still suffer. It is the enduring sameness of our cruelty to each other that is so exhausting.

Eleanor Roosevelt was the chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission and the engine behind the creation of the charter. When she submitted it to the UN, she said:

“We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere.”

While the document did a better job with gender than her introduction, I look back on her optimism with wonder. Did she really believe?

What would it take for the world to declare a common set of values now?

On Point

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Anxiety, Kierkegaard said, is the dizziness of freedom. This freedom of which men speak, for which they fight, seems to some people a perilous thing. It has to be earned at a bitter cost and then — it has to be lived with. For freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.  We must all face an unpalatable fact that we have, too often, a tendency to skim over; we proceed on the assumption that all men want freedom. This is not as true as we would like it to be. Many men and women who are far happier when they have relinquish their freedom, when someone else guides them, makes their decisions for them, takes the responsibility for them and their actions. They don't want to make up their minds. They don't want to stand on their own feet.
Eleanor Roosevelt

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