Today, on Dec. 10, the world celebrates 70 years of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document, crafted in the immediate aftermath of World War II, captured the essential notion that every human being without distinction to race, gender, nationality, or creed had an inalienable right to be treated equally and respected for their inherent dignity.
The Declaration was written as an aspirational document, crafted in the aftermath of a devastating world war in which the most extreme human rights violations occurred. It has strong American influences, as the United Nations Human Rights Commission chaired by the dynamic Eleanor Roosevelt was the chief drafter of the document. Roosevelt referred to the Declaration as the “international Magna Carta for all mankind.”
While it is perhaps easy 70 years later to be jaundiced and cynical about a U.N. document, we should understand that in its time this was a revolutionary articulation. It expressed an important and undeniable consensus among all countries that human rights mattered, and that each human being was valued and worthy. The Universal Declaration laid the groundwork for major international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States is a party.
Quoted by rich and poor alike
The Universal Declaration has inspired constitutions around the world, given a language of claim to human rights advocates, and captured the essence of the rights to which each human being is entitled by virtue of their humanity. It is an essential reference point for naming the rights of every human being. It is quoted by rich and poor alike. It has become a touchstone for expressing the indivisibility of human rights and captures the essence of what we mean by protecting human rights for all persons in all dimensions.
As we celebrate 70 years of the Declaration, we are also profoundly aware that human rights are under stress around the globe. We live in an age of cynicism and despair about the language and value of rights. Watching egregious human rights violations in Yemen, Iraq, South Sudan, Saudi Arabia we are aware that human life seems dispensable, governments appear to be unaccountable, and there is fatigue for activists and observers alike.
In the United States, as concerns about the use of force against persons of color persist and deepen, as poverty demonstrates its unrelenting hold, as environmental harm deepens, as participation in elections is marred by issues of access and exclusion, and as racism and anti-Semitism appear to move into the mainstream – human rights appear vulnerable and marginalized in politics and law.
Minnesota has a long and proud traditional of human rights activism and engagement. In tandem with a celebration of 70 years of the Declaration, the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center is committed to the value of human rights in our curriculum and our research.
The center has been part of the global story of protecting and promoting human rights, and was deliberately established on Human Rights Day so that the tradition of global-local engagement by the university and the state would be honored.
We have led by example. We have taught generations of human rights lawyers who have gone on to play leadership roles locally, nationally and internationally. We have — through the work of faculty — represented the United States at the United Nations Sub-Commission for Human Rights protecting rights across the globe.
New, profound challenges
Despite all the reported cynicism and fatigue, we see something different every day. Each year we welcome a new group of students to the Law School, committed young people seeking to advance and promote the rights of others. We see opportunities to reshape and work with our local communities and the extraordinary human rights organizations that are based in the Twin Cities. We work to develop innovative solutions to the new human rights challenges of this century. There is no doubt that the challenges to human rights across the globe are profound.
But, human rights in our view have always been about struggle, retreat and reclaiming. As we celebrate our own 30th anniversary today, we look forward to the next 30 years of sustained human rights in this community, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the inspirational document that continues to guide what we do. Its aspirations are as relevant now as they were 70 years ago.
Fionnuala Ni Aolain is the faculty director of the Human Rights Center at the University of Minnesota Law School. She also currently serves as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Protection of Human Rights While Countering Terrorism.