Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

The Mid-Life Crisis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

The Mid-Life Crisis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

A half century in a human life is regarded as a particularly significant anniversary because it is viewed as mid-life - fifty years is at least the halfway point in a person's earthly existence. We anticipate that, by the age of fifty, a person is at the apogee oftheir development. We expect them to have fulfilled any promise they showed as a young person and to have tied up loose ends. We are impatient with any signs of unexploited talent and missed opportunities. At the same time, the age of fifty is sometimes associated with mid-life crises that propel middle aged individuals into dramatic change in personal relationships or in work. Mid-life crises take a variety of forms. Sometimes a mid-life crisis is an attempt to live a more authentic existence, an existence that is truer to the real desires of the person than the imposed traditional lifestyle they previously have followed. Other mid-life crises may be attempts to slough off responsibilities and to cling to a youth that has passed.

These somewhat contradictory currents are implicated in the fiftieth anniversary ofthe Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Universal Declaration).1 Some reactions to the fiftieth anniversary will be purely celebratory it is, after all, a great feat that this set of human rights standards adopted in the tense post-war world has achieved widespread acceptance, at least in the sense that no state has denounced it, and more positively in the sense that it has been widely implemented in national legal systems. Other responses to the fiftieth anniversary will be tempered by the sustained resistance to many of the Universal Declaration's provisions. Some states are reluctant to be bound fully to the treaty translations of the Universal Declaration's provisions. Some states claim that the Universal Declaration and the United Nations (U.N.) system of human rights protection is a reflection of Western values and therefore is a vehicle of cultural imperialism. Some activists and scholars claim that in our globalized world, the provisions of the Universal Declaration are completely inadequate to respond to the real threats facing humanity.

In this paper, I focus on one element of mid-life benchmarks: What relevance is the Universal Declaration - and the body of human rights law it has generated - to women's lives around the world? My argument is that the Universal Declaration can be likened to a certain type of fifty-year-old man. It was born in an era when the rights of men to control and dominate the public spheres of the economy, politics, law, and culture were unquestioned. It may have been shaken a little by the increasing claims of women to participate in life beyond the private sphere, but it nonetheless has settled into a rather selfsatisfied middle age in which society accommodates women by changing slogans or vocabulary. The Universal Declaration needs a mid-life crisis of identity to force it to reexamine its existence in a radical way and to launch it into an energetic middle age that is not set in traditional male patterns. This is, of course, an unpredictable journey that may antagonize those who have relied on the Universal Declaration as a stable symbol of international values. First, I will set forth the limited attention that the text of the Universal Declaration gives to women's lives. Then, I will describe some of the recent feminist critiques of the U.N. human rights system and the U.N.'s responses to these critiques. Finally, I will present some possible outcomes of a productive mid-life crisis of the Universal Declaration.

II. Text of the Universal Declaration

Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the Commission on Human Rights's (CHR) drafting committee that was responsible for the Universal Declaration. All of the other committee members were men. The language of the Universal Declaration reflects this uneven representation of the sexes. The new Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), however, kept a watching brief on the creation of the instrument. …

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