UDHR at 75: American Fantasy or Fallacy?

The UDHR was a significant advancement in global politics and was the product of Eleanor Roosevelt and a group of gifted international specialists’ dexterity.

Following the most catastrophic wars in history, the newly established United Nations Organisation (UNO or UN) members accomplished something extraordinary on December 10, 1948. They supported the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a bill of rights for all people. The UDHR was a significant advancement in global politics and was the product of Eleanor Roosevelt and a group of gifted international specialists’ dexterity. It declared that “non-derogable” rights belonged to people, not only sovereign governments. A government’s current treatment of its citizens would be subject to justifiable international criticism.

The Sorry State of States

These achievements are in jeopardy 75 years later. Globally, there has been an increase in repression; authoritarians are using new digital technologies to spread false information abroad and crush dissent at home, and there has been a surge in violent conflict between and within states, along with widespread violations of international humanitarian law and impunity for war crime perpetrators. It is difficult for established international organizations to uphold rights that have been around for a long time and to modify the concepts of human dignity in response to new dangers to the world. Numerous countries that were formerly strong proponents of human rights, like the United States (US), have shown themselves untrustworthy guardians of liberty. Human rights advocates should recommit to Roosevelt’s goal while trying to bring international procedures up to date with new and developing rights concerns as the best way to honour this sombre anniversary.

The First Statement of Human Rights

President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States gave his yearly State of the Union address to a still neutral but nervous country on January 6, 1941, as the Axis aggressors were gaining control over Europe and Asia. He promised to fight towards the “four essential freedoms”—freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want—to create a better future for everyone on the planet. Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s lifelong companion in life and career, carried forward this optimistic vision as the first chair of the then eighteen-member UN Human Rights Commission, which was founded in late 1946, despite Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death before the end of fascism. The first comprehensive statement of human rights in history resulted from two years of difficult and controversial deliberations led by Roosevelt and several bright colleagues. The team’s varied backgrounds and points of view disprove the widespread belief that the declaration is a Western import that disregards cultural and civilizational distinctions instead of what it truly is: a statement with broad applicability. The document’s authors began with the belief that there is only one human nature and situation and that every person has intrinsic dignity that must be upheld.

Early on, the panel faced the difficult decision of whether to produce a nonbinding statement of principles to be approved by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) or a legally binding covenant. In the end, Roosevelt convinced her colleagues to take the latter path, believing that a united proclamation based on a common moral code would be the basis for subsequent official international treaties. Her optimism would be vindicated by history. The negotiators’ most remarkable accomplishment was creating a document that could unite countries and garner support worldwide. At a time when communist and capitalist governments were combining to form Cold War blocs and colonial movements were calling for independence from their imperial overlords, this result was by no means inevitable. Today’s relevant argument was one of the primary diplomatic hot spots: whose rights—civil and political or economic, social, and cultural—should the world prioritize over others? Roosevelt paved the way for a practical middle ground by ensuring that the final UN member state document recognized both the abolition of limitations on individual liberty (negative rights) and the provision of resources that allow people to live with dignity (positive rights).

The Four Pillars of Rights’ Structure

The four pillars of the temple are found in Articles 3–27. The fundamental individual rights to life, liberty, equality before the law, access to impartial justice, and freedom from slavery, servitude, torture, and arbitrary arrest or imprisonment are listed in the first pillar (Articles 3–11). Civil and political rights, such as those to privacy, freedom of movement, refuge, nationality, and marriage, are listed in the second pillar (Articles 12–17). The third (Articles 18–21) lays forth the rights guaranteed by the constitution, including the freedoms of speech, religion, and thought and the rights to peaceful assembly and universal suffrage. The fourth (Articles 22–27) lists a wide range of economic, social, and cultural rights, such as the right to social security, decent work, education, leisure, and a living standard sufficient to cover the costs of housing, food, healthcare, and social services. The pediment that unites the entire structure, Articles 28–30, states that the realization of these human rights will be contingent upon both a favourable domestic and international order and people’s willingness to embrace their shared responsibility to work together to advance this agenda.

Although they might be tempted, hard-nosed realists would be mistaken to reject the UDHR as a lofty declaration of noble intent devoid of practical significance. The declaration upended history by offering benchmarks for evaluating governments and a symbol for human rights activists to unite behind. Oppressed peoples used it all across the world to challenge totalitarian regimes, to demand independence from colonial masters, and to delegitimize racist discourse and institutions, including those in the US. Numerous tenets of the statement were incorporated into national legal frameworks and constitutions. The statement established the foundation for several international and regional legal instruments, courts, bodies, and nine fundamental UN human rights treaties, ranging from the 1966 UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Emergence of Authoritarianism

But the risk to these hard-earned rewards is growing. There are several elements at play, but three stands out in particular. First, the tyrants have retaliated—and with a vengeance. Even though almost every UN member state consents to the concept of human rights, many of them regularly violate their citizens’ liberties, and the trend lines are trending in the wrong direction. We are in the seventeenth year of a democratic recession worldwide. During the epidemic, this downward trend quickened as strongmen used the worldwide health emergency as an excuse to suppress dissent. Not very long ago, many onlookers mistakenly believed that the digital revolution would inevitably push the boundaries of freedom. Autocrats of the day used technology, including monitoring, to strengthen their hold on power.

China is the most potent authoritarian nation. President Xi Jinping has total authority over the Chinese Communist Party, which has suppressed political dissent inside the party, eradicated human rights in Hong Kong, and imprisoned one million Uyghurs in concentration camps. China is working further and harder to erode human rights around the world. It is sending dictatorial techniques to other countries’ rulers and frightening anyone who disagrees with its policies, even those living abroad in diaspora communities. To exacerbate the situation, some of the most significant recent reductions in human freedom have taken place in well-established democracies, such as the strongest, the United States. Donald Trump’s administration in the United States, which lasted from 2017 to 2021, exposed the country’s democratic institutions and dedication to the rule of law. The US has declined on key democratic indices due to a decline in civil rights.

Moreover, there has been an increase in violence globally, putting civilians in the line of fire for grave violations. In crisis areas like Gaza, Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Syria, and Yemen, mass atrocities and breaches of international humanitarian law (IHL) have become the norm. Over 20,000 Ukrainian children have been taken by Russian military personnel in what appear to be war crimes. Following the murder of over a thousand Israeli people in Gaza by Hamas terrorists, Israel unleashed thousands of bombs on the tiny enclave, killing over 15,000 Palestinians, the majority of whom were women and children.

International Protection Framework

The hollowness of the international community’s once-heralded efforts to establish new legal frameworks and norms—namely, the responsibility to protect (R2P) and the International Criminal Court (ICC)—to stop atrocity crimes and hold offenders accountable is shown by such outrages. R2P, which was overwhelmingly adopted by the UNGA in 2005, obliges member nations of the UN to take action whenever a government wage war on its citizens or neglects to shield them from mass murder. This duty has been practically abandoned as a result of what is thought to be application selectivity. There’s a similar sense of disappointment with the ICC. Significant powers, including China, Russia, and the United States, have never supported the Rome Statute, which was established in 1998 to pursue cases involving war crimes, crimes of aggression, crimes against humanity and genocide. It has also not appeared to affect stopping or prosecuting atrocities. Only ten people have been found guilty since it started operating in July 2002.

The US itself, which has been in a Janus-faced posture since the time of Eleanor Roosevelt, is the third obstacle. No nation has contributed more to the advancement of human rights ideas and their integration into international law over the previous 75 years. Few, though, have resisted being constrained by multilateral agreements or coming under international scrutiny to such an extent. For example, the US is the only country not to have ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and one of only seven not to have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). It is not a party to the 1966 Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, or any other treaties that the majority of UN member states have approved.

American Exceptionalism or Exemptionalism

There are several reasons for this ambivalence. One is the unique rights culture of America, which places more weight on the abolition of restrictions on speech and assembly than it does on positive rights, which rely on government action or potentially non-existent resources (like the right to a minimum wage or housing). The widely recognized theory of American “exceptionalism,” which holds that the country has much to offer the world but not much to learn from, is another. Third, parliamentary democracies do not share a two-thirds majority, and the Senate needs to advise and agree to multilateral treaties. This is a significant legislative barrier to taking on legally enforceable responsibilities abroad. Beneath these three factors lies a fourth: the pervasive but unfounded belief that treaties are fundamentally at odds with American sovereignty and the importance of the US Constitution. Because it tended towards exceptionalism and “exemptionalism,” the US is an uneasy advocate of human rights.

All of these elements were present in the early 1950s when the US Congress came dangerously close to passing the Bricker Amendment. This law was modelled after segregationist policies and severely restricted the president’s ability to make treaties while shielding the country from international pressure to grant equal rights to all of its citizens. The bill’s creator, Senator John Bricker (R-Ohio), is long dead. Still, his ghost continues to linger in the conservative nationalists’ unwillingness to allow foreign observers to examine US human rights practices. Meanwhile, America’s claims to be their worldwide defender are undermined by the country’s ongoing inability to uphold universal rights at home, as demonstrated by the injustices that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. America’s selective support of human rights overseas, which leaves it open to accusations of hypocrisy and applying double standards, is much more detrimental to the country’s reputation.

The Establishment of the UNHRC

Increasing the UN Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) efficacy ought to be one of the goals of this endeavour. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) was founded in 2006 to take over from the UN Commission on Human Rights. Its primary function is to safeguard, promote, and assess the state of human rights worldwide. Still, it is an imperfect body to which autocratic powers are regularly chosen. Republican administrations in the US have viewed it as irreparable, calling it “a cesspool of political bias and a protector of human rights abusers,” as UN Ambassador Nikki Haley put it in 2018. Democratic ones, on the other hand, have concluded that the US should stay inside the tent and fight the good fight with partners who share similar values rather than carp from the outside while the foxes control the henhouse. The case for the Democrats is stronger. The UNHRC has adequate means to monitor and reveal flagrant human rights abuses, notwithstanding its problematic membership. These include “special procedures,” including assigning rapporteurs to examine particular norms, vulnerable groups, or nations.

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) system is another, requiring members to make their human rights records available for external scrutiny every 4.5 years. US President Joe Biden’s term has shown how vital US participation in the UNHRC is. Collaborating with other countries, the administration facilitated the initial UN denunciation of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and Russia’s removal from the UNHRC. By acknowledging shortcomings in advancing and upholding human rights within the borders of the US, the administration has also lessened international criticism of its perceived sanctimony. The proponents of human rights ought to restate a comprehensive understanding of human dignity. As previously mentioned, the US has historically taken a hierarchical attitude favouring “negative” rights above “positive” rights—a position the Trump administration carried to an extreme. Due to its stance, the US was frequently left in a solitary and condescending place when it was the only nation to vote against resolutions endorsing, for example, a right to water. The Biden administration has made the prudent decision to soften its stance to conform to the UDHR, which acknowledges the interconnectedness and indivisible character of fundamental rights. By stating their version of the hierarchy of human rights, based on a culturally or nationally distinct understanding of rights, this holistic approach also makes it more difficult for dictatorships like China to justify crackdowns on civil and political rights.

Brave New World of Rights & Beyond

The world faces three major global crises: extreme climate change, fast-moving biodiversity loss, and excessive pollution. Building on recent resolutions in the UNGA and UNHCR, it is imperative to establish a fundamental human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable climate due to the unequal impact of these interconnected trends. Governments must simultaneously protect human freedom and dignity from the threats posed by artificial intelligence (AI) and other digital technologies, both online and offline. These threats include algorithmic bias, misinformation and disinformation, mass surveillance, censorship, loss of data privacy, and the widening of digital divides. Biotechnology advancements like genetic engineering and human enhancement also threaten these rights. Therefore, the global human rights framework must also be adjusted by advocates of dignity to new threats, such as the growing climate emergency and the quick development of AI and other revolutionary technologies. During a time when many in the so-called Global South believe the wealthy world is unconcerned with their issues, mainly their development ambitions, this more comprehensive viewpoint fosters goodwill among developing nations.

The human rights advocates should seek to modernize current procedures to consider changing views on human rights and to confront new dangers to those rights that were hardly, if at all, foreseen in 1948. Recognizing and defending the fundamental rights of LGBTQI+ individuals is one of the most urgent imperatives because these individuals now face terrible discrimination and persecution in numerous nations across the world. To its credit, the Biden administration has led the charge on these initiatives, even at the UN. The terrible status of human rights today should spur action rather than be a source of hopelessness. These and other emerging threats to human dignity were beyond the comprehension of Eleanor Roosevelt. Fortunately, there are timeless and universal ideas to apply to them in the declaration she helped design and deliver. On the 75th anniversary of the UDHR, the world ought to consider her legacy to modify the ground breaking text for the upcoming century of difficulties. The best approach for human rights advocates to celebrate the UDHR’s anniversary is to recommit to Eleanor’s ideas while trying to bring international processes up to speed with modern circumstances.

Dr. Nafees Ahmad
Dr. Nafees Ahmad
Ph. D., LL.M, Faculty of Legal Studies, South Asian University (SAARC)-New Delhi, Nafees Ahmad is an Indian national who holds a Doctorate (Ph.D.) in International Refugee Law and Human Rights. Author teaches and writes on International Forced Migrations, Climate Change Refugees & Human Displacement Refugee, Policy, Asylum, Durable Solutions and Extradition Issus. He conducted research on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from Jammu & Kashmir and North-East Region in India and has worked with several research scholars from US, UK and India and consulted with several research institutions and NGO’s in the area of human displacement and forced migration. He has introduced a new Program called Comparative Constitutional Law of SAARC Nations for LLM along with International Human Rights, International Humanitarian Law and International Refugee Law & Forced Migration Studies. He has been serving since 2010 as Senior Visiting Faculty to World Learning (WL)-India under the India-Health and Human Rights Program organized by the World Learning, 1 Kipling Road, Brattleboro VT-05302, USA for Fall & Spring Semesters Batches of US Students by its School for International Training (SIT Study Abroad) in New Delhi-INDIA nafeestarana[at]gmail.com,drnafeesahmad[at]sau.ac.in