By Sandy Sohcot
The focus of The World As It Could Be Program is raising awareness of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and its continuing relevance to help bring about equality, justice and dignity for all people. We have carried out this work the last 12 years because we have witnessed the positive impact on youth who learn about the UDHR and apply its principles in their most immediate circles. While the UDHR is supposed to be taught in high schools across the country as part of teaching U.S. and World history, we also have learned that only 8% of the US population even knows the UDHR exists, no less how it came to be and why it matters!1
How does this relate to the issue of the U.S. dropping its membership from the UN Human Rights Council? I believe we must better understand the history behind the Council’s formation and what it represents as a continuing effort to realize fundamental human rights for everyone, in order to grasp the full impact of the U.S. dropping its membership.
The UDHR was developed under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the first Commission on Human Rights, established as part of the creating the United Nations in 1945. Rosemary Blanchard, a colleague I highly regard in so many ways, and, in this context, for her extensive work on human rights education and international human rights law, provides an outstanding description of the historical context for creating the UN in the aftermath of World War II in her 2010 National Social Science Journal Article One Shining Moment: The American Role in the Expansion of Humanitarian Law after World War II. As Rosemary points out:
That the draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be presented to the General Assembly was finally brought to conclusion at all and that it retained the continued support of the United States government was a tremendous accomplishment, due to the efforts of many committed representatives from around the world. Nonetheless, the role of Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership in the maintaining the momentum and in securing the continued support (with some backsliding) of the American government for the Declaration itself at least through the adoption of the document, was significant. The result, although certainly imperfect and incomplete, was and is the first truly global statement on the rights of “everyone” in every nation to be able to rely upon certain fundamental human rights.
When Franklin Roosevelt articulated in his 1941 Four Freedoms Speech2 a vision of the world where every person could experience Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Fear and Freedom from Want, he offered tremendous hope of what was possible with the perseverance and effort of the allied forces fighting against the tyranny of fascism. These four freedoms were woven into the UN Charter, as well as the UDHR, and, as Rosemary explains in her article:
Just as important, the UN Charter called for the creation of a “commission for the promotion of human rights” within the UN’s Economic and Social Council, the only separate commission established in the charter itself. (United Nations General Assembly, 1945)
In 2006 the original Commission on Human Rights was replaced by the current Human Rights Council in an effort to address problems related to the member countries of the Commission often seeking refuge on the Commission from criticism of their own human rights violations. The October 28, 2016 Harvard International Law Journal Article titled Did the Creation of the United Nations Human Rights Council Produce a Better “Jury”? provides a helpful analysis of the challenges faced by the Council. As the article points out, while the Council improves upon the original concerns regarding the Commission, there are still problems regarding the members of the Council and their own records regarding respect for human rights. All this said, I believe the overall work of the Council is worthy of attention, and that we ought to consider the effort required to fulfill the mandates of the Council while overcoming its many challenges.
Key to this consideration is recognizing that this work has only been happening for the last 73 years. This is a miniscule amount of time to address the hundreds of years of war-based dynamics the world has suffered.
The tremendous hope the UN and its composite functions has provided, including the deliverance of the UDHR, as a radical new way to address global issues and sustain peace, requires commitment of effort on everyone’s part far beyond these 73 years. The major leadership role of the U.S. in creating the UN and the UDHR was key to generating hope for this better world.
In ending its membership in the Human Rights Council, stating that its efforts of the last few years haven’t yet had the desired results, the U.S. is dealing a severe blow to much needed hope, and is weakening its leadership role in working on issues with a mindset committed to effort toward continuous improvement. After all, the U.S. is only 242 years old, and we readily recognize we continue to work toward a “more perfect union.”
We can speak up to our representatives to implore that the U.S. ought to reinstate its membership in the Human Rights Council and set the example of what it means to exert sustained effort to keep working toward the world as it truly could be.
- Human Rights USA. (1998). Human rights here and now: Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Flowers (Ed). Minneapolis, MN: Human Rights USA Resource Center.
- Facing History and Ourselves: https://www.facinghistory.org
Resources and Articles
Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 Four Freedoms Speech
Article: Did the Creation of the United Nations Human Rights Council Produce a Better “Jury”?
Current Membership of the Human Rights Council
About the Work of the UN Human Rights Council
Article: “One Shining Moment”, by Rosemary Ann Blanchard, National Social Science Journal (PDF)