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“Human Rights Start at Home”
60th Anniversary of the Adoption of the UDHR
Keynote Address
December 10, 2008
Daniel E. H. Bryant

To watch a video of this address, click here.

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 to protect.

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 harvests.

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 world.

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 people.

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.


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Photo by Paul Carter, The Register Guard, used by permission.