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Universal Declaration of Human Rights Marks 60th Anniversary

Wednesday, December 10, marks the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Spearheaded by former U.S. first lady and U.N. delegate Eleanor Roosevelt, the UDHR guaranteed the political and civic rights of all people, including the right to freedom from torture, slavery, poverty, homelessness and other forms of oppression.

Most people assume today that the guarantee of human rights is an essential feature of all civilized societies. But the UDHR was a product of a unique historical moment, says Larry Cox, director of the human rights group Amnesty International USA.

"It came out of the horrors of World War II, the Great Depression and, of course, the indescribable horrors of the Holocaust that made the world realize that something had to be said about basic human rights," Cox says. "It was no longer a question of individual states doing whatever they want to for their citizens, because the way that governments treat their citizens affects the whole world and especially the peace and security of the whole world."

Cox adds that while the fledgling U.N. General Assembly ultimately passed the UDHR by 48-0 vote, a huge diplomatic effort was required to get disparate nations to agree on exactly what "human rights" are or should be. Communist countries proffered one view, while capitalist and Islamic countries had their own perspectives.

"And what they did was say basically 'What are the things that every human being needs to have to live a fully human life?' And that led them to recognize not only freedom from fear - that is civil and political rights - things like freedom of speech, the right not to be tortured, the right to have a fair trial, but also economic and social rights - the basic needs that need to be met in order to live a life of dignity and freedom. So it includes a right to an adequate income; it includes the right to housing. And it sees all of those rights as interdependent."

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a treaty. However, because its purpose is to define the terms "fundamental freedoms" and "human rights" embedded in the U.N. Charter, all U.N. member nations are bound by it. Cox says the UDHR has acquired the force of international law and has bolstered human rights movements.

"We've seen dictatorships fall in Latin America. We've seen the end of the Soviet Union and other dictatorships. We've seen the end of [racial] apartheid," Cox says. "You can look at countries like Argentina and Chile, where the Mothers of the Disappeared cited the declaration when they went out to protest what was happening and mobilized the governments. And eventually, of course, those dictatorships fell. You can look at the Philippines, where people also cited the declaration in fighting the dictatorship of Marcos. None of those things happened overnight. But… all of this is, in a sense, the legacy of what governments promised in 1948."

Those promises have not always been kept, of course. Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, says that developing and developed nations alike have been accused of violating provisions of the UDHR, in particular Article Five, which forbids torture.

"And there are, in today's era, those who would say there are circumstances where that prohibition should not bar activities that would help more people than would be tortured by the breach of it," Hicks says. "But the commonality in the Universal Declaration is to reject that argument and to say that, 'No, you as a government and as a subscriber to the Universal Declaration have made a commitment that, regardless of the arguments for national security or other exigencies, recognize that the damage that would be done [by torture] far outweighs any advantage that could be obtained."

According to Article 25 of the UDHR, "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food…" That is why it is considered a human rights violation for any government to prevent the distribution of humanitarian aid to any part of its population or to allow economic discrimination against any population group.

"And what we've seen is that in societies where human rights are not respected, they are not able to pursue problems of development in terms of housing and education, health, the right to food, effectively," Hicks says. "A good common-day example of that is in Zimbabwe, where the humanitarian crisis and the human rights crisis are inextricably interlinked. And we look at today's economic crisis and wonder, 'What will be the impact of that on human rights?'"

Cox acknowledges that there is a long way to go before human rights are universally respected. But he believes that since its passage in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been much more than mere words expressing an abstract ideal.

"And we have seen over the decades what Martin Luther King called 'the human rights revolutions,' that is to say people who did whatever they had to do - write letters, petition, go to the streets - to say to the governments, 'You made these promises. We insist now that these rights be respected and fulfilled.'"

Indeed, adds Cox, action is what makes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a "living" document, not something just to be remembered or invoked in ceremonies, but something to be fought for, celebrated and fulfilled every single day.