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The U.S. and the U.N.: Human Rights Day

Updated: Jul 30, 2019

On December 10, the world commemorates U.N. Human Rights Day. In advance of this day, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said that human rights lie at the core of the U.N.’s identity and urged the world community to “stand up for someone’s right today, tomorrow and every day.” Reflecting on his time as leader of the global body, Ban emphasized the importance of the three pillars of the organization: peace, sustainable development, and human rights. The three pillars when taken together “form the basis of resilient and cohesive societies rooted in inclusion, justice, and the rule of law,” he said.

In 1950 the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution inviting states to honor the day in 1948 when the U.N. adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). From the UDHR, two legally binding treaties were developed: The International Civil and Political Rights (ICCCP) centered upon the right to life, freedom of speech, religion, and voting. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights dealt with the protections guaranteeing the necessities of life, such as food, shelter, health, and education. The core principles of each of these treaties are enshrined in the U.N. and apply to all peoples of the world.

Several treaties saw passage because of the UDHR, including the 1951 convention relating to the Status of Refugees and conventions barring Racial Discrimination, Discrimination against Women, and the Use of Torture. Moreover, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide sought to eliminate the intent to exterminate an entire race or class of people based on their national or ethnic origin or religious identity as the Nazis set out to accomplish in World War II.

The voice and force behind the establishment of the UDHR was Eleanor Roosevelt. It was the former first lady’s determination, passion, and courage that brought this document to fruition and will forever remain her legacy. The driving force behind the UDHR for Mrs. Roosevelt was her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his Four Freedoms speech to the 77th Congress in his 1941 State of the Union address. In this speech, FDR said that people around the world should have the privilege in sharing in the same freedoms that Americans enjoy. His four freedoms were: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

In the aftermath of World War II, and following FDR’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt would advocate strongly for the incorporation of the four freedoms into the UDHR. She was appointed by former President Harry S. Truman to represent the U.S. at the U.N. as part of the first U.S. delegation at the U.N. in 1945 where she would serve until 1952. Mrs. Roosevelt ultimately saw the passage of the UDHR and had a direct role in the drafting of the declaration. The former first lady would be proud to see this year’s theme: “Stand up for someone’s rights today!” This was the mantra that she had lived by her entire life; championing and fighting for human rights.

Despite calls for respecting the rights and dignity of everyone, the fight against tyranny and those who commit violations of human rights continues. There are several very serious examples of human rights violations being perpetrated around the world today that constitutes genocide and clearly requires greater attention of the international community: the mass slaughter of Syrian, Darfuri and Congolese refugees because of persistent civil war in these regions, the persecution of the minority Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and the brutality of ISIS against Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities.

The U.N. has been instrumental in dealing with crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court (ICC), brought about several convictions against Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, for atrocities committed while he was head of state and Thomas Lubanga     for conscripting children to engage in combat in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) occurred in 2012.] In the true spirit of the U.N. Charter, we should all remain vigilant with respect to the forces of hate that pervades our society today. Where it is evident, we should not withdraw, but speak out and become part of the force for change. This is the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt.


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