Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Rights Progress in Troubled Era

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Rights Progress in Troubled Era

Article excerpt

Fifty years ago, on Dec. 10, 1948, 49 out of 57 members of the United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For the first time in history, the international community sought to protect human dignity by declaring what peoples should expect of their societies and governments.

Through this troubled half-century, the world has built on that foundation. The Universal Declaration was a statement, without the force of international law, setting forth "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations." It proclaimed the right to fair trial; equality before the law; free expression of thought, conscience, and religion; and peaceful assembly. It also recognized the right to own property, work, join unions, be educated, and have an adequate standard of living.

Enumerating rights and establishing them in international law were two different matters. Eighteen years would elapse before, in 1966, two binding covenants on political and civil rights and economic, social, and cultural rights were adopted by the General Assembly. Another 10 years passed before the first covenant, on civil and political rights, was signed by a sufficient number of nations to go into force. The delays were understandable. With the breakup of empires, new nations entered the UN with different views and sensitivities. Authoritarian regimes spawned in the cold war paid little heed to the covenants, and democracies, in the name of security, tolerated their excesses. Against the backdrop of Nazi atrocities, the United States took the lead in pressing for the Universal Declaration. It subsequently has been the leader in turning the spotlight on human rights violations in other countries. Nevertheless, even Washington has had difficulties in accepting the legal obligations of the covenants. Carter administration efforts to establish human rights as a diplomatic goal had to be balanced with requirements of security and trade. Questions of sovereignty, conflict with domestic law, and ideology arose when the covenants were presented for US Senate ratification. …

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