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Another Voice: Historic U.N. document remains relevant on its anniversary

By Claude Welch

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948, ranks among the most important documents of the last 100 years. It has been translated into 370 different languages. It has become a touchstone for actions by governments, individuals and nongovernmental groups. It has been ratified by every country in the world.

The declaration sets forth a number of objectives, some to be achieved immediately, others as rapidly as feasible. It provides “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” Every “individual and every organ of society” shall promote “respect for these rights and freedoms … by progressive measures …” The goal is “to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.” Underlying the entire declaration is a basic value. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Although the declaration’s principles have been reaffirmed time after time, some assert that cultures or regions differ so much that no real global standards can exist.

An area of controversy swirls around the rights of people belonging to ethnic groups and national minorities. As individuals, they cannot be discriminated against because of their backgrounds. However, long-term economic or political disadvantages, deeply ingrained social attitudes and the like against the groups to which they belong raise profound questions.

Additional uncertainty exists with respect to internally displaced people. They cannot live in their usual homes because of conflict, but have not crossed an international border. They confront horrendous, dangerous living conditions existing in a legal no man’s land.

Another area of concern centers on how best to settle large-scale civil conflicts. Should the international community intervene for humanitarian reasons? In order to bring peace, should amnesty be given to former abusers of rights?

Still another area of concern involves apologies and reparations for previous human rights injustices.

Finally, serious economic issues undercut whether individuals can enjoy full human rights. Everyone must have adequate nutrition, housing and access to health care. People require reasonable chances for employment and schooling. However, serious problems remain in light of economic inequalities within and between nations, and especially in implementation.

Looking back to 1948, nonetheless, progress has been remarkable. A visionary document has become a living reality. The Universal Declaration should be celebrated for its firm foundation and flexible structure. This day will be celebrated around the world.

Claude Welch, Ph.D., is a SUNY distinguished professor and professor of political science at the University at Buffalo.