Summer 2014 (28.2) Essay

What Future for Human Rights?

Like people born shortly after World War II, the international human rights movement recently had its sixty-fifth birthday. This could mean that retirement is at hand and that death will come in a few decades. After all, the formulations of human rights that activists, lawyers, and politicians use today mostly derive from the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the world in 1948 was very different from our world today: the cold war was about to break out, communism was a strong and optimistic political force in an expansionist phase, and Western Europe was still recovering from the war. The struggle against entrenched racism and sexism had only just begun, decolonization was in its early stages, and Asia was still poor (Japan was under military reconstruction, and Mao’s heavy-handed revolution in China was still in the future). Labor unions were strong in the industrialized world, and the movement of women into work outside the home and farm was in its early stages. Farming was less technological and usually on a smaller scale, the environmental movement had not yet flowered, and human-caused climate change was present but unrecognized. Personal computers and social networking were decades away, and Earth’s human population was well under three billion.

When we read the Universal Declaration today, however, we find that it still speaks to many if not all of our problems. It addresses torture; detention without trial; authoritarian regimes that restrict fundamental freedoms and punish political participation; discrimination on grounds of race, gender, and religion; and inadequate access to food, education, and economic opportunities. Further, its norms have been embodied in international treaties that are widely accepted. The 1966 UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example, has been ratified by 167 countries and entered into force in 1976. The European and Inter-American courts of human rights have developed large bodies of innovative jurisprudence addressing issues such as terrorism, privacy of home and family, and the land claims of indigenous peoples. And specialized treaties have applied human rights principles to the problems of minorities, women, migrant workers, children, and the disabled. So perhaps human rights will be like the U.S. Bill of Rights and survive for centuries—albeit with many amendments and reinterpretations.

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