The Sixtieth Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Exploring the Past, Anticipating the Future

AuthorMicheline R. Ishay
PositionProfessor and Director of the International Human Rights Program at the Graduate School of International Studies ("GSIS") at the University of Denver

Professor and Director of the International Human Rights Program at the Graduate School of International Studies ("GSIS") at the University of Denver. She is the Author of THE HISTORY OF HUMAN RIGHTS: FROM ANCIENT TIMES TO THE GLOBALIZATION ERA (2008), INTERNATIONALISM AND ITS BETRAYAL, (1995), and Editor of THE HUMAN RIGHTS READER (2d ed., Routledge 2007). This paper was presented as a speech at a colloquium held by the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights ("UICHR") in celebration of the Sixtieth Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ("UDHR"), entitled The Challenge of Universal Rights: Realizing Dignity and Justice for All (Dec. 5-7, 2008) at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA. The UICHR's co-sponsors for the colloquium included The University of Iowa International Programs, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, the Iowa United Nations Association, The University of Iowa College of Law, and the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council.

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I Introduction

This past summer, as I was walking through Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv to catch a plane, I stopped to watch an exhibit of posters celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the State of Israel. There were seven posters, starting with one representing the year 1948, and continuing at ten year intervals until 2008. Each poster was designed to capture essential features of Israel's experience, so that scanning them, one could get a sense of Israel's struggle to be born, its agonizing childhood, its swings, as it matured, between hopes for peace and renewed conflict, and finally, at sixty, the feeling that the Page 640 pioneering vision of a democratic state in the Middle East had become aged and imperiled.

I left my encounter with that sixty-year journey to board a flight to New York City. Soon after my arrival, I strolled eastward along 42nd Street until I came upon a familiar building, standing aging but proud, at the edge of the East River. The entrance to the United Nations was adorned with banners, interspersed among the multicolored flags of the world, announcing the celebration of its sixtieth birthday. Two sixtieth birthdays at the same time? My first unreflective thought was that this was a coincidence. But of course, it was not.

The State of Israel and the United Nations both grew out of World War II, both became viable possibilities at the moment of Nazi Germany's defeat in 1945, and both came to life fully in 1948. Dramatizing the connection between these two births is the fact that the first human rights document adopted by the U.N. members was not the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but the Convention on Genocide, which they voted on one day before the December 10, 1948 passage of the Universal Declaration. In the shadow of the horrors of World War II, the goals of preserving interstate peace and preventing genocide seemed inseparable. The unprecedented carnage, after all, had included both international aggression and the Holocaust.

In the words of the Polish Jewish linguist and human rights activist, Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term "genocide," "never again" would the horrors of the Holocaust be repeated while the world stood by, never again would the world be unprepared to halt aggression before it was too late. 1 The linked goals of international order and justice would be backed by a robust international organization, guided by the highest principles of rights, monitoring the behavior of nations, providing a platform for the diplomatic resolution of conflicts, and where necessary, using military force to uphold its values.

Lemkin's promise, as we were to learn in the next sixty years, would not be kept, as subsequent events would challenge the vision animating the United Nations and its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet it would clearly be wrong to conclude that the Universal Declaration has left no imprint on history. What has been the fate of the principles established by the first Human Rights Commission, under the supervision of the resolute and passionate Eleanor Roosevelt? What are we to make of her and her colleagues' belief that codifying the fundamental principles of human rights was critical to the future of humanity-which had just sacrificed perhaps 90 million people, in battles and massacres, from the siege of Stalingrad to the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Buchenwald, and Treblinka; from the Page 641 fire-bombing of Dresden to the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What would become of that generation who, after World War II, would at times reach for its dreams, and other times would settle for the cynicism born of helplessness or the cynicism born of power? At sixty years of age, it is not unusual to take stock of one's own life, and, especially at gatherings like this, it seems appropriate to take stock of the sixty-year lifetime of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I am going to adapt the device I discovered in the posters of Ben Gurion Airport, using twenty-year intervals, instead of ten, to illuminate the journey of human rights from 1948 until 2008, then finally moving ahead to speculate on what we might see on such a poster twenty years in the future. The first three of those twenty-year intervals-1948, 1968, and 1988-each represent moments of dramatic affirmation in the struggle for human rights. At each of those points, daunting challenges generated new responses, responses which deepened and broadened the meaning of universal human rights.

Thus, in 1948, the Universal Declaration responded to the horrors of World War II by providing a comprehensive and indivisible conception of human rights; 1968 celebrated the forceful assertion of rights by the former colonies, the rise of human rights dissent within the Soviet empire, and, in the West, the birth of new movements aiming at the liberation of women and other oppressed groups; 1988 (more precisely 1989) announced the demise of one vision of universalism (socialism, or rather communism) and the apparent victory of another (liberalism or neo-liberalism). Human rights activists, however, moved quickly to challenge the neo-liberal agenda of unfettered globalization and to revive the search for universal social justice.

In sharp contrast to those previous milestone anniversaries of the Universal Declaration, the sixtieth anniversary has not witnessed the same vitality in the human rights movement. Instead, the celebration this year will be muted by mixed feelings, blending a resurgence of cultural, parochial, and nationalist pride with a sense of uncertainty and yearnings for a better future. One aspect of the legacy of the human rights campaigns of the 1960s and 1980s had been a process of fragmentation of the original, comprehensive vision contained in the Universal Declaration. At this critical stage, one can envision two paths: a dark path reminiscent of the years following the first World War, and another path promising to avert this dark future by revisiting and expanding a world order born from the ruins of World War II. This talk will conclude with some thoughts on the dangers we face and how we might avert them.

II 1948

But first, I want to fill in our first three posters-1948, 1968, and 1988- in order to provide visual snapshots of the unfolding human rights struggle of the past sixty years. What is depicted on that 1948 poster, starkly printed in black and white? The bottom few inches of the poster are covered by the outer wall of a Nazi death camp, smoke rising from the gas chamber within. Page 642 Towering above that wall is an image of a forceful Eleanor Roosevelt, reading aloud from a document held between her two extended hands. Plainly written on the cover of her text is the title: "The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights." What can we say about this image?

Let us begin the journey at that moment in 1947 when the first Human Rights Commission was asked to identify which rights were shared by all human beings. Their work was to draw on generations of struggle and thought, dating back to ancient times and ancient religions, and taking its modern form during the Enlightenment. René Cassin, one of the principle drafters of the Universal Declaration, drew on the battle cry of the French Revolution, identifying the key principles of the U.N. Declaration as "dignity, liberty, equality and brotherhood." 2

Cassin proceeded to envision those four principles in terms of the four pillars of a Roman portico, and to divide the twenty-eight Articles of the Declaration into four corresponding clusters. The first pillar stands broadly for human rights, which are shared by all individuals regardless of race, religion, creed, nationality, social origin, and sex. The second pillar, corresponding to Articles 3-19 of the Declaration, represents what would be labeled the first generation of rights: the right to security and civil liberties whose forceful advocacy emerged during the Enlightenment. The third pillar, containing Articles 20-26, includes the second generation of rights, those related to political, social, and economic equity that were championed during the industrial revolution. The fourth pillar, representing Articles 27-28, incorporates the third generation of rights, those associated with communal and national solidarity, which grew out of the struggles against colonialism in the late 19th Century. In a sense, then, the sequence of the main twenty eight articles corresponds to the historical appearance of changing visions of universal rights.

The unique contribution of the U.N. Declaration resides in the effort to bring those principles within the...

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