Eleanor Roosevelt was fond of saying that documents expressing ideals “carry no weight unless the people know them, unless the people understand them, unless the people demand that they be lived.” A tireless fighter, Roosevelt’s supreme and lasting achievement was securing the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
The Declaration has withstood the test of time. Yet the work of making its ideals real is far from over. A new report by the Global Citizenship Commission (GCC) aims to address this challenge. Under the leadership of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the GCC both affirms the continuing relevance and inspirational force of the UDHR, and seeks further recognition and respect for human rights for all citizens of the world today. The Commission – whose members also include Mohamed El Baradei, Asma Jahangir, Graça Machel, Robert Rubin, Amartya Sen, and Jeremy Waldron – will present its findings to the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, on April 18 in New York.
Endorsed and adopted in 1948 by most member states of the United Nations, the UDHR endures as a beacon and a standard, its influence both wide and deep. The Declaration was then – and remains today – an unprecedented educational and cultural force, making people conversant with the idea of human rights, providing a widely accepted text enumerating those rights and sending out a message that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Today, the UDHR, translated into 350 languages, is the most-often cited human rights document the world knows. By setting out, for the first time, fundamental rights to be universally protected, it is a milestone in the history of human interactions and the cause of human rights.
The cornerstone of the Declaration is the concept of human dignity, exhibited in the preamble’s pronouncement that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Sadly, for millions of people, the recognition of their inherent dignity is far from a reality. Hideous and systemic human rights abuses continue to be perpetrated at an alarming rate around the world. Many people, particularly those in power, are hostile to human rights or indifferent to their claims.
The social, political and legal environment has been transformed since 1948, and our global interconnectedness and dependence have diminished our moral distance from each other. Our understanding of human rights has evolved too. The GCC identifies specific rights requiring more emphasis than they received in the Declaration, if they were acknowledged at all. As one might expect, the rights of women, children, the disabled and the LGBT community demand further attention and a deepened global commitment.
The Commission also advances recommendations that highlight the urgent need to strengthen human rights implementation in the twenty-first century. Some of these call for upholding particular rights in new ways. Recognizing that the rights of children are routinely violated across the globe – with 15 million girls married each year before their 18th birthday, and 8.7 million children in modern slavery – the Commission proposes the creation of an International Children’s Court, with the power to receive and adjudicate petitions from children and their representatives on violations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to issue legally binding judgments, and to investigate areas of concern such as child labor, child slavery, and child marriage. Moreover, in a world where 60 million individuals are displaced from their homes and 20 million are refugees, the rights of migrants and stateless persons have become – as was true in the upheavals following the Second World War – a matter of vital importance. The GCC accordingly urges the global community to strengthen the international refugee protection system, and consider adopting a new international convention on refugees and migrants.
Other recommendations call attention to deeper, structural issues impacting the implementation of human rights protections. The most prominent of these is the issue of national sovereignty. One visionary principle the UDHR puts forth is that the human rights struggle is the world’s business – that one state’s action demands global recognition, and at times a response. To that extent, the rights culture inculcated by the UDHR has transformed the world of sovereign states. The Commission affirms: first, that countries may not misuse their national sovereignty as an excuse for insulating themselves from external pressure on human rights; and second, that it is legitimate for states to raise human rights issues in conducting foreign relations.
Finally, the Commission advocates enhancing the UN’s system for upholding human rights. Time and again, vetoes or threats of vetoes by permanent members (the P5) have blocked Security Council action to maintain international peace and security in a range of crises. The Council’s inability to act on behalf of civilians in Syria – and elsewhere – has not only had a massive cost in human life, but also dangerously eroded the credibility of the UN system. In turn, this gives the green light to perpetrators seeking to engage in more flagrant abuses. To address this, the Commission endorses a proposal that the P5 voluntarily suspend veto rights in situations involving mass atrocities. In Syria’s tragic wake, such a step would enhance the legitimacy of the Security Council, strengthen its integrity and convey the will of the international community to make the protection of human life a true priority.
The Commission’s report is a reminder of what is at stake. By insisting that states, international organizations, corporations and individuals each and all have a common responsibility to secure human rights, the Commission hopes that the general principles so eloquently espoused in the UDHR can finally be realized in the twenty-first century. We should come to know and understand these principles better. And we should work to see these visions not just secured, but lived. There would be no greater testament to the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt.
The Global Citizenship Commission’s report is available at: