On December 10, 2012, the United Nations will observe the International Day for Human Rights celebrating the day 64 years ago when member nations of the newly formed United Nations signed into International Law the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was a struggle for the writers to include the many rights and privileges that we believe are part of the unalienable rights of every global citizen. Eleanor Roosevelt led the delegation in purpose and positive attitude to the final draft of the document. Here, in summary form, are the rights, which the United Nations guarantees to every person on the globe.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Are born free and should all be treated in the same way. Are equal despite difference in race, sex, language, etc. Have the right to life and to live in freedom and safety.
Should be free from slavery . Should not be subjected to torture . Have the right to be recognized before the law . Have the right to be treated equally before the law . Have the right to ask for legal help when their rights are not respected. Have the right to not be imprisoned unjustly.
Have the right to a fair trial. Have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Have the right to privacy. Have the right to travel within and to and from their own country . Have the right to political asylum . Have the right to a nationality . Have the right to marry . Have the right to own property . Have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion . Have the right to freedom of opinion and expression . Have the right to meet with others . Have the right to take part in government matters and to vote . Have the right to social security (i.e., to have basic needs met). Have the right to work and to join a trade union . Have the right to rest and leisure . Have the right to an adequate standard of living and medical help . Have the right to an education . Have the right to take part in their community’s cultural life . Are entitled to a social and international order that can provide these rights. Must respect the rights of others.
As a part of the Pax Christi delegation at the UN, I became a member of the NGO committee on human rights. I learned from meetings with officials from the Human Rights Commission and other activists in the field that at the UN the pursuit of human rights has had its trials and stumbling blocks. Although the document remains signed by all the countries of the world, it is sad but true that it does not mean it is implemented or honored in every country.
Many positive strides have been made to improve the rights of people in many countries, including the U.S., over the past 60 years, but much more work needs to be done. In some cases people are not even aware that they have these rights and so cannot demand them of their government. This is rapidly changing as the world is constantly linked by advanced media technology. In countries where human rights are routinely abused, there are NGOs reporting and calling the world’s attention to these violations.
The difficulty for the UN in every resolution, declaration and treaty is how to make sure that the individual states hold true to their promises. If a nation does not follow international law they may be subject to sanctions or discrimination from other countries–the international community will try to “blame and shame” the violators into changing their ways–but there is little else that can be done.
At the UN, I have witnessed a change in the entire structure of the Human Rights Commission over the past several years. The Commission is responsible “to investigate, protect and promote human rights”. The first attempt at a Commission in 1948 resulted in a treaty body that had little or no power to hold countries responsible. It was also apparent that many countries serving on the Commission were well known violators of their own citizens’ human rights. This affected the credibility of the Commission and it was often seen as unsuccessful and unproductive.
With the establishment of the newly formed Human Rights Council in 2006, two changes were made that are helping this branch to be more effective. It is now an intergovernmental body with in the United Nations system, made up of 47 States selected by the General Assembly on a rotating basis. The method of selection is partially based on the human rights record of the countries seeking membership.
Another change that has made this Council more effective is the establishment of the Universal Periodic Review. This committee will review the records of all 193 member states every 4 years on a rotating basis. Each country must submit a report of their work on defending and promoting human rights for their people. The Review Committee questions and evaluates the report. Each country is then asked to draw up a plan that shows how they hope to improve their record before the next review. You can find the reports of each country on the UN web site by searching for the Periodic Review Committee (PRC) in the human rights section. All countries have been evaluated once and are now in the second cycle phase.
Civil society has an opportunity to preview a country’s report and to make comments to the Council in writing. For nongovernmental organizations, like Pax Christi, who are working on the ground in many countries, their input has the potential for influencing a more fair and just system. The adoption of these changes has added more credibility to the Human Rights Council.
There are a few areas in which I have witnessed improvement since I arrived as an NGO for Pax Christi in 2002. There has been a definite shift in recognition of the rights of women and the desire to end violence against girls and women in all parts of the world. There is an effort, which Pax Christi International has been party to, to add ‘the human right to peace’ to the document. There is also a significant movement currently underway to eradicate the use of the death penalty. Finally, in 2007 indigenous people received overdue recognition in the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People. All these efforts are ongoing and need the support of the NGO community and its memberships to push leaders to make these a meaningful and lasting reality.
In the U.S., even as we pride ourselves on being the stewards of human rights, most of us in the peace movement realize that there are many people still denied their basic human rights right here. One need only observe the disproportionate massive incarceration of African-American and Hispanic males, the use of solitary confinement, the death penalty and prisons like Guantanamo that hold people without trial. The fact that we have assassination lists, laws that deny women equal opportunity, sex trafficking, Native American rights violated without fair trial, unfair immigration policies and many individual cases of abuse by people who have power over others reminds us that we too have a great deal of work to do!
We can point to many positive changes over the years, as our first report to the UN Review Council in 2010 stated, but we can never let our guard down or sit on our success until we can declare that human rights for all are a guarantee in our country.