Wed 10 Dec, 2008
Tags: Human Rights Day, Jimmy Carter, Modern slavery, Racial discrimination, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
December 10, known worldwide as Human Rights Day, celebrates the achievement of a nearly universal text promoting a wide range of civil, political, social and economic rights for all humankind. While not legally binding, owing to Cold War disagreements, the document has become one of the most influential legal texts in history.
The rights afforded to all persons under the UDHR include equality (Art. 1), lack of distinction based on race or color (Art. 2), the prohibition of slavery and the slave trade, “in all their forms” (Art. 4), and equal protection and non-discrimination (Art. 7). These provisions have been used in a variety of ways. For instance, in the 1960s and 1970s, the United Nations employed some of the provisions mentioned above to draw attention to the racial discrimination taking place in South Africa and Rhodesia.
Of course, there are limits to the success of the Declaration. Nations are not bound by the document’s provisions, and are free to disagree with particular principles or simply to ignore those which are inconvenient. However, the very genius of the Declaration is that it has promoted the belief that these rights are fundamental and universal, which often puts significant pressure on nations to conform to the UDHR’s standards. More troubling is the fact that the document, written in an earlier era, is focused almost exclusively on the behavior of nations, which shifts attention from abuses by non-state actors and social movements. Enforcement of the Declaration can also be highly problematic, even when nations pay lip service to its provisions. The prohibition on slavery, for instance, does not prevent the enslavement to this day of roughly 27 million persons around the world.
To mark the sixtieth anniversary, former president and Nobel laureate Jimmy Carter has an op-ed in the Washington Post, arguing that the United States under Barack Obama must restore faith in international human rights by rolling back several practices of the Bush administration. He urges an end to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and to torture, indefinite detention, and to the denial of due process for terrorism suspects. He also calls for a thorough review of U.S. practices in these and related areas, so that the U.S. can acknowledge mistakes and thereby “embolden others abroad who want higher moral standards for their own societies,” including Pakistan, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, and the Middle East.
In China, the anniversary was observed with the detention of Chinese dissidents and protestors, including Liu Xiaobo and others who signed a public letter for the 60th anniversary of the UDHR. The letter bluntly calls for Chinese authorities to grant political, legal, and constitutional reforms in line with the principles of the Declaration and evolving global standards.