There are those who might downplay the
significance of this anniversary. What is a “declaration” after all? It
is just words. People make declarations all the time. They don’t really
change anything. And who pays attention to the U.N. anyway?
We would do well to remember,
therefore, the founding document of this country, the Declaration
of Independence. Many here can probably cite by memory those words
penned by Thomas Jefferson: We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life,
Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. In other words, we all have
certain rights which cannot be taken from us because they are not given
to us by any government, they are intrinsic to who we are as human
beings and as such, they belong to all of us.
The Declaration of Independence,
however, for all of its greatness, has one critical flaw—it was written
for one specific group, one subset of the human species. The Universal
Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), on the other hand, is for all of us,
for all human beings. It is, therefore, to the citizens of the world
what the Declaration of Independence is to the citizens of the U.S. Just
words on paper, yes, but so much more. Its importance to all people is
perhaps symbolized by the fact that it is the most translated document
in human history, appearing in over 360 languages.
And for the first time in human
history, leaders not of one nation or one ethnic group or one faith
tradition, but of the world’s nations set forth to define in this one
document what is self-evident to all people, that by the virtue of who
we are as human beings—not citizens of this or that nation, but citizens
of the world, not followers of this or that religion, but followers of
human decency and dignity—that all of us are people of equal worth and
deserve equal treatment.
That is not to say that our national
identities, faith traditions and cultural heritages are not important or
beneficial, but to recognize that even when we speak different
languages, even when we have different skin color, even when we hold
different beliefs, even when we have different physical abilities, even
when we worship different gods or no god, even when we have different
lifestyles and sexual orientations, that in spite of all these
differences, we still share basic things in common as human beings. The
UDHR defines in significant detail those basic qualities of human life
which we all share and value and which are, therefore, vitally important
Think for a moment about the global
context 60 years ago. The world was still recovering from the brutal
violence of WWII and still coming to grips with the enormous atrocities
committed under the guise of war—the systematic attempt to annihilate
entire groups of people, not only all Jews on the European continent,
but also gypsies, communists, homosexuals, severely disabled—basically
anyone who had a lifestyle, a religious belief, a political association
or appearance that those in power found offensive.
In many ways the UDHR is the world’s
response to the famous lament by Martin Neimöller: In Germany, they
came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a
Communist; And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t
speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist; And then they came for the
Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew; And then . . . they
came for me. . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.
The UDHR is the collective voice of
people of conscience speaking up to say no more will we look the other
way, no more will we ignore the cries of the oppressed, no more will we
allow governments to trample on basic human rights. Those basic rights
are rooted in four foundational freedoms first articulated by FDR in his
1941 State of the Union Address: the freedoms of speech and belief, and
the freedoms from fear and want. On the eve of joining the war that had
already begun in Europe and Asia, the President told the country that a
world based on such freedoms was “no vision of a distant millennium. It
is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and
generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called
new order of tyranny which the dictators [and we might add terrorists]
seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”
The 30 articles of the Declaration lay
out the rights derived from these four freedoms, such things as the
right of life and liberty, freedom from torture and discrimination,
access to courts with fair and public hearings, freedom of movement,
freedom of thought and religion, freedom of assembly and association,
the right to work for equal pay, the right to health care and education,
and much more.
The Declaration was approved by the
U.N. without dissent, though 10 of the 58 member countries abstained.
Thereafter the U.N. began working on a series of treaties, covenants and
protocols to implement it. Together with the Declaration, the first two
of these—the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and
the International Covenant on Economics, Social and Cultural Rights—form
what is known as the International Bill of Human Rights. Along with
these, treaties on racial discrimination, discrimination against women,
torture, the rights of the child and migrant workers, make up the core
of international human rights law.
Every member of the U.N. has ratified
at least one of these agreements and 80% have ratified at least four of
them. Only one member has ratified all of them, while none of the
agreements have been ratified by every nation, though the Convention on
the Rights of the Child has been approved by all nations but two:
Somalia (which does not have a functioning government) and the U.S.
(which … has no such excuse). Some of the agreements have not even been
approved by a majority of nations. These agreements have taken years and
in some cases decades to negotiate. All of the agreements are binding on
those nations which have ratified them. All of this gives you some
indication of how difficult it is to work out these agreements and how
remarkable it is that we have come this far in just 60 years. But this
is not a time to rest on our laurels.
The great abolitionist Fredrick Douglas
said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess
to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops
without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and
lightning.” Let us then think of our task not as those who reap the
harvest of past laborers, but those who prepare the ground for future
Our theme for tonight is, “Human Rights
Start at Home.” Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the U.N. Committee that
wrote the Declaration and was its primary champion here at home and
abroad, said it well as Ken Neubeck and Ibrahim Hamide quoted in part in
this morning’s op-ed in the Register Guard:
Where, after all, do universal
human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so
small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they
are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives
in; the school or college she attends; the factory, farm, or office
where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and
child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without
discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have
little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold
them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger
The challenge is before us: we are the
ones who have to make it happen, beginning here at home. We have to
build the coalitions which reach out to folks who are different from us
because protecting their rights is protecting our rights. We in the
faith community have made this clear ever since the attack on the
synagogue 14 years ago here in Eugene: an attack on any house of worship
is an attack on every house of worship.
The same is true in every walk of life.
Human rights for the straight community are also rights for the LGBT
community. Human rights for the majority are also rights for the
minority. Human rights for citizens are also rights for immigrants.
Human rights for guest workers are also rights for mill workers. Human
rights of habeas corpus for our enemy combatants are also rights for our
soldiers overseas. Human rights for people of faith are also rights for
people of no faith. Human rights for police officers are also rights for
demonstrators. They are the same rights for all of us.
And human rights know no color. They
are not black or white, red or blue. They are not Democratic rights or
Republican rights or Green rights or Libertarian rights. They are not
the rights of Christians or Jews or Muslims or Hindus or agnostics or
atheists. They are not conservative rights or liberal rights or special
rights. They are human rights, they are rights that all of us
share and therefore all of us must fight for and protect.
In one sense though they are special.
They are special because you are special. They are special because your
children are special. They are special because your neighbor is special.
They are special because the homeless on our streets are special. They
are special because the children of Iraq are special. They are special
because the mothers of Mumbai are special. They are special because our
soldiers are special. They are special because prisoners in Guatanamo
are special. They are special because every human being is special.
So on this 60th Anniversary of the UDHR,
this we declare, that there are truths which are self-evident.
This we declare: that every human being
deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.
This we declare: that every human being
deserves justice and liberty.
This we declare: that every human being
should be free of want and fear.
This we declare: that all human beings
are created equal.
This we declare: that no one is free
until all people are free.
This we declare: the rights we want for
our selves and our children, are the rights we will honor for all
This we declare: that we, good people
of Eugene, dedicate ourselves to make this a human rights city, in a
human rights nation, in a human rights world.
For this Universal Declaration of Human
Rights is our declaration. May it so be, here and everywhere.