At 70, is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights doing its job?

The World
Indian women stand in a line for food.

Seventy years ago, the world was still reeling from previously unthinkable atrocities Hitler had committed during World War II. In 1948, world leaders gathered in Paris, France, to help make sure nothing like the Holocaust could ever happen again: they agreed on a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“This Universal Declaration of Human Rights may well become the international magna carta of all men, everywhere,” said US delegate, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, in a speech. 

But from the start, there was a tension within US politics about whether America would submit to international justice. 

“One of the real challenges to getting the US to sign on to international agreements was concern that human rights treaties would require doing something about Jim Crow laws in the south,” says Oona Hathaway, founder and director of the Center for Global Legal Challenges at Yale Law School.

That tension continues today. 

“We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected unaccountable global bureaucracy,” President Donald Trump said in September at the United Nations in reference to the International Criminal Court — the legal body that prosecutes human rights violations. The ICC’s prosecutor recently asked to investigate the situation in Afghanistan, including US actions. Hathaway believes Trump’s rejection of the court undermines the UN’s foundation.

“I think that what you’re seeing in the Trump administration right now is a real unwillingness to publicly — at least, strongly — support the principles behind the Universal Declaration,” Hathaway says, adding this has led to human rights abuses around the world by leaders who no longer worry about consequences. 

Brett Schaefer, a foreign policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, disagrees. He says the US still champions human rights. 

“I think that the administration is criticizing the UN in particular ways,” Schaefer says. “I don’t think that the United States has criticized the UN for the Universal Declaration.”

Related: President Trump, what is your administration’s commitment to human rights?

Schaefer says the real problem is that the UN has represented itself as the guardian of universal human rights.

“I think a lot of times, people will look at the deficit of human rights around the world and kick the can saying ‘we’ll let the UN deal with it,’” he says. “But the UN is not able to advance the ball in a lot of areas.” 

He says the UN doesn’t enforce the Declaration. Instead, it allows participation by countries that flout human rights, and Schaefer says those misbehaving states have used the UN to deflect criticism of their countries and heap it on others. 

Since 2006, a UN Human Rights Council was established to monitor human rights violations around the world, but some of its 47 member states have been implicated in the violations.

“When you have a majority of member states in the UN that do not adhere to fundamental human rights and freedoms, do not believe in economic freedom, it’s hardly surprising that the organization itself has failed so miserably to champion those rights over the years,” he says. 

Related: UN sets up human rights probe into Gaza killings, to Israel’s fury

That makes things sound pretty dire. But Ravina Shamdasani of the UN Human Rights Office says it isn’t so bad. 

“It’s very easy when you’re reading the headlines to fall into despair and to think that it’s all unraveling, but really — it’s not,” she says.

The non-binding Declaration was the first step toward binding international human rights treaties and UN humanitarian work around the world. 

For example, Shamdasani says, in 2004, she was in south India, helping set up camps for displaced people after a tsunami. She saw a sign that told people they each had a right to one bag of rice per week because — under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — everyone is entitled to a healthy, adequate standard of living.

“And that, to me, really said a lot,” she says. “It said to me that you may have lost your homes and you may have lost your livelihood, but you have not lost your human rights and your dignity. And you can go with your chest out, your head held up high and demand that bag of rice.” 

And it won’t be charity, Shamdasani says. It’ll be a person asking for their rights, with dignity. 

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