Human Rights Day in an Unjust World

By Allison Hess

Every year on December 10th, the world celebrates Human Rights Day. It is the anniversary of the day the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This year marks 68 years since these rights were acknowledged to belong inherently to every human being on Earth.

“Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”

Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Fresh from the atrocities of the Second World War, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) notes in its preamble that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” It was this outrage which spurred the United Nations into being. Respect for human rights was clearly essential to achieve the peaceful and just world that the UN was founded for. The UN acknowledged that in order to ensure that Member States uphold human rights in their countries, it was essential to establish a common understanding of what precisely those rights are. And so they made this Universal Declaration, with the understanding that the governments of all Member States would take steps to both recognize and observe these rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt reads the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Eleanor Roosevelt represented the United States on the drafting committee of the UDHR.

However, the declaration did not have the force of law. When countries signed it, they basically agreed in principle to the fact that all human beings have this list of rights, but nothing in the Declaration legally bound any of them to change their governments’ policies to affirm those rights. Right now, there is no country on Earth where are all peoples’ human rights are upheld, because in all countries on Earth poverty still exists, discrimination still exists, and violence still exists. Human rights bodies at the UN are not empowered to enforce the UDHR – their power lies in monitoring, observing, and denouncing violations. It therefore falls upon us, the members of civil society to take up the struggle.

Supporting human rights and responding to human rights violations is an inherently Unitarian Universalist action. (The UDHR itself was written by a Canadian Unitarian - John Peters Humphrey drafted the initial text). And still today, around the world our faith aligns itself firmly on the side of human rights. Unitarian Universalists are actively engaged in struggles for social justice and for equal protection of rights denied to so many.

Nelson Mandela fighting for social justice in South Africa

South Africa established Apartheid the same year the UDHR was adopted, requiring over 40 years of struggle until Apartheid ended and human rights were recognized.

In recent months we have seen an upsurge across the globe in prominent extreme right-wing movements that pose grave threats to human rights and human dignity. Worldwide, these movements have been specifically targeting migrants, Muslims, people of color, women, and those who are or are perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. These groups, already marginalized in some societies, are being persecuted and are increasingly victim to hate crimes. Now is the time when, as a people of faith, we must gather together in solidarity and in defense of all people’s human rights. On Human Rights Day we acknowledge how far the world has come, and also recognize how much work there is yet to accomplish in achieving respect and dignity for all.

Support the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office to advocate for UN policies that will defend human rights for all, and get active in your community to protect those whose human rights are under threat.