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HUMAN RIGHTS: 50 YEARS OF PROGRESS - Opinion/Editorial - By Jerome J. Shestack- Division of Media Relations and Public Affairs - American Bar Association


By Jerome J. Shestack

December 10 marks the beginning of the 50th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is an appropriate time to recall the progress of international human rights and to appraise future prospects.

When the United Nations was founded in 1945, the individual had scant protection in international law. The real impetus for international protection of human rights arose from the ashes of the Nazi experience and the Holocaust.

The horror of that experience, in which a human being counted for nothing, underscored the critical need to protect the rights of the individual through international human rights law.

The new U.N. Charter reflected this need. The Charter affirmed the dignity and worth and the equal rights of each person. Article I states that the purpose of the Charter is to maintain peace and promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

To define these human rights, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration was adopted by the United Nations just before midnight on December 10, 1948. At the time, Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the Human Rights Commission, predicted that the Universal Declaration would become a "Magna Carta for mankind." The Declaration is, indeed, a bill of rights for the world.

The first twenty-one articles specify certain civil and political rights much like our own Bill of Rights -- the right to life, liberty, and a fair trial; the right to freedom of conscience, expression and association; freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention and exile; and similar rights.

The next nine articles specify social and economic rights, such as the right to a decent standard of living, to social security, to work and leisure, to health care, and to education.

Over the course of time, the rights in the Universal Declaration were fleshed out by a series of treaties covering civil and political rights, economic and social rights, racial discrimination, religious tolerance, torture, and women's and children's rights.


The great flaw in the law of international human rights lies in the inadequacy of implementation.

At the start, United Nations' efforts to enforce human rights were often politicized and largely ineffective. Still, within the past decade or so, an encouraging number of mechanisms, procedures and techniques have been generated to enforce human rights standards.

One mechanism is the creation of working groups and special rapporteurs to expose human rights abuses. Such exposure is vital because it marshals world opinion against human rights abuses.

There is a strange mystique about world opinion; even repressive rulers like to present faces of concern for humanitarian goals. Repressive rulers invariably distrust a populace that has the dormant power to overthrow them. World opinion thus has the potential to stimulate yearnings among the populace, encourage the growth of opposition leaders and stimulate demands for the observance of rights.


Another mechanism increasingly utilized in the human rights field is linkage. Many repressive nations seek trade, technology or security arrangements from Western democracies. In recent decades, Western democracies have linked trade, technology or arms negotiations with human rights goals.

Experience teaches us that, at least in the trade and commercial area, linkage can be an effective means of achieving human rights progress -- a lesson that should not be lost in current negotiations with China.

Most of the laborers in the field of human rights believe that there is a moral inevitability to human rights. I believe that. The difficulty with inevitability is that it does not provide a time frame. While we wait, we suffer the anger and frustration of continuing injustice and abuse that we are often powerless to redress.

Still, the past half century has made human rights part of the international agenda - and it will remain there. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has created a standard for human rights achievement. In the past fifteen years alone, we have seen the democratization of Latin America, the fall of communism and other advances in human rights observance by emerging democracies. Of course, human rights abuses remain virulent in many countries. The relation of human rights to peace is clear. Nations that observe human rights do not war against each other. So too, nations that observe human rights are inclined to pursue justice and the rule of law.

The past fifty years have shown an appetite for human rights among the masses of the world that should ultimately devour rulers who fail to satisfy the human rights hunger. The movement supporting human rights has turned out to be the revolution of our time.

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