On its 75th anniversary, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights matters more so than ever.
Human Rights Day on December 10 provides an opportunity to consider 2023, a year with many positive and negative milestones. For instance, this year marks the 75th anniversary of landmark documents establishing the international human rights legal order. But 2023 also witnessed mass atrocities, political and religious repression, inter and intra-state conflict, and other evils. With the stark reality of ongoing human rights abuses, we should not walk away in hopeless antipathy but rather recommit to defending fundamental freedoms for all, drawing strength and inspiration from the work of preceding generations.
The Origins of Human Rights Conventions
Human Rights Day commemorates passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on December 10, 1948. Notably, 75 years ago, it wasn’t the only major human rights document created by the international community; in fact, two others preceded it: the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (May 2, 1948) and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (December 9, 1948). Together, they created the foundation for what developed over the ensuing decades into an intricate network of broad and reinforcing human rights standards at global, regional and national levels.
We take these rights for granted today. However, before 1948, universal notions of human rights were not accepted or recognized. Until World War II, international law privileged states over individuals. The UDHR inverted this relationship, recognizing individuals as rights holders and governments as duty bearers to protect those rights. By reordering the relationship between individuals and their governments, the UDHR is rightly considered a momentous document in human history. As the United Nations describes, the declaration “enshrines the inalienable rights that everyone is entitled to as a human being – regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
What is often forgotten is that two other important documents preceded the UDHR. The first international human rights document was proclaimed not by the United Nations but rather by the Organization of American States in the summer of 1948. In its preamble, the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man declares, “All men are born free and equal, in dignity and in rights, and, being endowed by nature with reason and conscience, they should conduct themselves as brothers one to another.” While nonbinding, it made clear the importance of human rights to the countries of the Americas.
More far-reaching was the Genocide Convention, approved by the U.N. General Assembly one day before the UDHR. However, unlike the morally powerful but nonbinding UDHR, the Genocide Convention is an actual treaty. The Genocide Convention complimented the UDHR, as it focused on communities of people and not individuals, while the UDHR established persons as individual rights holders.
The Prevention of Genocide
The term “genocide,” widely used today, was a new term in the late 1940s. Why? Because words did not exist to describe the horrors of Nazi atrocities against Jews as well as Slavs, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, disabled persons and other “undesirable” populations deemed worthy of extermination. Rafael Lemkin, who escaped Poland to the United States and lost 60 family members in the Holocaust, devised the term. A renowned legal scholar, Lemkin created the word by fusing geno-, from the Greek word for race, with -cide, stemming from the Latin word for killing.
Building off Lemkin’s work, the Genocide Convention defined genocide as: “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: 1. Killing members of the group; 2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; 3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; 4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; 5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” Under this comprehensive definition, signatories carry the obligation not to commit genocide, to prevent genocide and to punish genocide.
Are 20th Century Conventions Still Relevant?
But despite these and other treaties that followed, human rights abuses and mass atrocities continue seemingly unabated. Advocates and victims are right to ask if these documents created in the last century are applicable in the 21st century. Can they speak to the violence witnessed in so many places today? While the human rights regime is under incredible pressure, these documents remain enormously important and relevant.
We should remember how these declarations and conventions were born after the worst atrocities in modern times, all three emerging out of the ashes of the Holocaust and the horrors of World War II. Consequently, their standards are relevant in times of war because they were informed by times of war. These documents can address mass violations today because the authors lived through the bleakest hours of human history and wrote them in response. These were not “pie in the sky” wishes but rather humanity’s first effort to prevent abuses and recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person in response to mass killings on an industrial scale.
In addition, these documents created universal standards from which to measure the actions of governments. They place commitments on nations to behave in certain ways and provide evidence when they do not. Without them, the “might makes right” relativism seen in Communist China’s actions toward Uyghurs or Russian aggression against Ukraine would be harder, if not impossible, to rebuff. While these documents could not stop Russian tanks, they made clear the illegal nature of Vladimir Putin’s actions and position the international community to hold him accountable.
The Need for Meaningful Action
As we mark Human Rights Day, we should pause to remember those suffering persecution and oppression. But more than remembering, we should act. The United States and its like-minded allies should recommit to the standards established 75 years ago and insist on their adherence. Bad actors should be called out, followed by consequential diplomacy that creates a cost for misbehavior. If we say human rights matter, then the relationship with repressive nations must change, and perpetrators must be held accountable. Meaningful and decisive action is the best way to honor the 75th anniversary of these revolutionary documents.
Knox Thames is a Senior Visiting Expert at the United States Institute of Peace.