The Human Rights Declaration Turns 70

United Nations logo at U.N. headquarters in New York City (Mike Segar/Reuters)
It’s high time to restore its credibility.

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The blueprint for modern international law was adopted on December 10, 1948, by world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly. The declaration contains 30 articles that have laid the groundwork for the binding international human-rights treaties.

The anniversary is, of course, a cause for celebration. The declaration has been incredibly valuable for the protection of universal human rights on a global level. However, 70 years on, the reality is that we are far from securing human rights for every person. The prestige of international bodies has tumbled in the past decades as they have failed to uphold basic rights around the world. At the same time, they have extended their reach into highly contentious issues around which no consensus exists.

The United States’ withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council is only one prominent example of the weakening interest that powerful countries have in engaging with international bodies. We need a renewal of the international sphere by a proper affirmation of what fundamental rights are and the proper gamut of international law. Otherwise, the credibility of international law will perish.

The declaration was painstakingly crafted. Its authors sought agreement from both the West and the East after the nightmare of World War II. Only those basic rights that could attain absolute consensus were included.

Unfortunately, many member states simply do not care anymore. They are unwilling to accept the rights set forth in the declaration. The case of Asia Bibi is a sad example. She is a Christian woman who was unjustly accused by Muslim neighbors of blasphemy during a domestic dispute. Her treatment has highlighted the ways in which blasphemy laws in Pakistan violate basic human rights.

Although the Supreme Court of Pakistan recently overturned Bibi’s death sentence, the Pakistani government has done nothing to amend its laws to prevent their abuse or bring them in line with international standards. Yet, at the United Nations, Pakistan is a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, a position that should be reserved for countries that protect and promote the foundational human rights outlined in the declaration. Other countries have similarly held leading human-rights positions at the U.N. despite allowing egregious violations back home.

While many countries violate fundamental rights with seeming impunity, the U.N. too often focuses on expanding invented “rights.” For example, international law does not recognize a right to abortion. Yet individual experts and committees at the U.N. have tried to invent and assert such a “right” in reports and comments. These documents are then used to pressure countries into accepting legal changes they never agreed to.

The latest instance of this came just recently from the U.N.’s Human Rights Committee. It adopted General Comment 36, addressing the right to life. The committee declared, with no legal warrant, that states should grant access to abortion in various circumstances. Also, those who assist women in obtaining illegal abortions should not be criminally penalized.

On the other hand, the committee insisted that states should remove “barriers” caused by medical providers who object to performing abortions. The Human Rights Committee appears to believe that a right to safe abortions — which is nowhere hinted at in international law — is more important than the right to freedom of conscience, which is specifically protected by the declaration and other binding international treaties.

This type of mission creep only delegitimizes the international project. It also provides an excuse for countries that flagrantly abuse human rights. During his visit to the U.N. earlier this year, Pope Francis called such actions by the U.N. a form of “ideological colonization by the stronger and the wealthier, to the detriment of the poorer and the most vulnerable.”

But the dream has not vanished. Thankfully, there are also positive reassessments of the role of international bodies from some of the most thoughtful intellects on the foundations for human rights.

By focusing on those fundamental rights that unite all humankind “in a spirit of brotherhood,” as Article I of the declaration proclaims, the U.N. may still yet regain its credibility and help restore a fracturing world. It is high time that all nations reaffirm the fundamental rights and freedoms that the declaration set out to protect 70 years ago.

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