Saturday, December 10, 2005


Today is International Human Rights Day. It marks the fifty-seventh anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the seed from which modern international human rights law has grown.

Paul Gordon Lauren, in The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen (2nd ed.), a magisterial account of the origins of our modern understanding of human rights, describes the signficance of the Universal Declaration this way:

In creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an international body representing the community of nations for the first time in all of history agreed on a universal vision of human rights on behalf of all men, women, and children everywhere in the world. The participants remarkably joined together to both reflect and transcend their many different political and economic systems, social and judicial structures, religious and cultural backgrounds, philosophical and ideological beliefs, stages of development and cultural settings, and histories of exclusive national sovereignty in such a way as to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that spoke of the "human family" as a whole and to establish a set of normative standards for all peoples and all nations. The fact that there was no single author, but rather hundreds--or, arguably, even thousands--who contributed to drafting the text, gave the proclamation and its vision even greater authority and prestige. . . . This vision proclaimed that all people everywhere possessed certain basic and identifiable rights, that universal standards existed for the world as a whole, and that human rights were matters of legitimate international concern and no longer within the exclusive domestic jurisdiction of nation-states as in the past. Yet, as those familiar with the long struggle for human rights knew from experience, tremendous distances often existed between abstract theory and actual practice. In fact, at the time of the adoption of the Univeral Declaration of Human Rights no state--not one--regardless of location, system of government, level of development, or culture, could meet its standards of achievement. Champions and opponents of human rights alike thus wondered what would happen and what it all would mean. The answer, of course, lay in the future and ultimately would depend on if, when, and how the world decided to transform this proclaimed vision into reality. (232)