Washington, 7 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Human rights experts say that while much work remains to be done, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has had a profound and positive impact on the lives of people all over the world in the past half century.
It was 50 years ago -- December 10, 1948 -- when the then 58 members of the two-year-old United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration. The document's 30 articles are not legally binding. But experts agree the declaration's enumeration of the rights every person is entitled to from birth has led to, in the words of one rights monitor, a transformation in the way that governments are expected to treat their people and each other."
The well-known American human rights expert, Thomas Buergenthal, notes that even though the declaration is non-binding, "it has acquired normative status as a sort of interpretive document underpinning what the UN Charter means when it refers, in articles 55 and 56, to the human rights which member states are obliged to promote."
Buergenthal is a professor at the George Washington University Law Center in Washington and a member of the UN Human Rights Committee. He is also a survivor of the Holocaust, an event that served as a catalyst for the Universal Declaration.
In a recent interview in Democracy Dialogue -- a publication of the U.S. Agency for International Development -- Buergenthal noted that over the past 50 years, the declaration, "has captured the imagination of mankind," and has acquired "a tremendous moral character."
Kenneth Roth, executive director, Human Rights Watch, a private, non-profit advocacy organization, says that there are some mixed feelings about the state of human rights in the declaration's anniversary year. Roth said:
"In contemplating this anniversary we had to ask ourselves a question of how do you celebrate 50 years under the Universal Declaration in a decade that has been marked by genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia. And certainly we have much progress that we can celebrate -- in much of Latin America, the former Soviet Union, Southern Africa, even parts of Asia. But nonetheless, serious violent abuses stubbornly persist in too many parts of the world."
However, Roth also told a gathering of Washington correspondents last week that:
"We believe that although governments will always be tempted to resort to violation of human rights to secure their place in power that nonetheless what does merit celebration is the emergence of a very strong movement for defending human rights, for pushing governments to resist that temptation and to respect the standards that are set forth in the Universal Declaration."
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acknowledged that "there are many today who point to the gap between the ideals set out in the Universal Declaration and the violations that persist fifty years after that document was signed."
In a speech last week commemorating the anniversary, Albright noted the conclusion of skeptics who declare, she said, "that we might as well give up, that no matter what we say or do, there will always be repression and discrimination. In this view, the violation of human rights is just another sad reflection on the limits of human nature."
In reply to that, Albright quoted a bit of dialogue from the classic Hollywood film 'The African Queen,' in which the actress Katharine Hepburn says to her co-star Humphrey Bogart: 'Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put into this world to rise above.' "
Albright said the U.S. believes that, "if we are to build the kind of future we want, we must insist that there is nothing inevitable and certainly nothing natural about gross violations of human rights. Cruelty, violence and bigotry, she says, are choices, and, said Albright, "what we have the power to choose, we have the power to change."
She also emphasized that for the U.S., "support for human rights is not just some kind of international social work." Albright said it is vital to the security and well-being of the U.S. because, "governments that disregard the rights of their own citizens are not likely to respect the rights of anyone else. "
Roth says the Universal Declaration has transformed respect for human rights standards in four broad areas over the past 50 years.
First, he says, the argument once used by repressive governments that human rights are an internal affair, "has lost any power to persuade." Roth said:
"Today it is widely accepted that a government's treatment of its citizens, its human rights record, is a legitimate concern for all of us. It is a legitimate topic for international discourse, and indeed that all of us have a duty to ensure that each government respects its obligations under the universal declaration."
Secondly, Roth says the scope of those who human rights protections are applied to has dramatically expanded. At the outset, he said, the concept of human rights applied mainly to political dissidents or government opponents in places such as the Soviet Union and China. Now, he says, it is understood and accepted that human rights apply to everyone -- women, children, laborers and refugees -- in short, anyone suffering injustice.
Third, Roth says there has been a "radical expansion" of the human rights movement itself. Rights advocates once comprised a tiny community. Today, Roth says international human rights monitors -- such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International -- are powerful and sophisticated organizations capable of moving governments to change policies.
Finally, he says the Universal Declaration has led to a strengthening of the international system of justice. Roth says UN-sponsored International War Crimes tribunals have taken aggressive moves to prosecute war criminals and other human rights violators, especially in the past year.
He says that, "judicial enforcement is the next step in advancing the cause of human rights."
However, Roth said that despite its growing strength, the human rights movement has hardly ended serious human rights abuse. Any celebration of the 50th anniversary, said Roth, must be tempered by the knowledge that serious problems persist, that many governments still resist applying the Universal Declaration to all their people. Roth added that, "as we celebrate this 50th anniversary, we need to focus on ways to end the impunity that most human rights abusers still enjoy."
(One of a series of NCA stories on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)