22222222Human Rights Day 2021: Why The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Isn’t Enough

By Jenny Horn

Human Rights Day is observed every year on the 10th of December, marking the date that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) back in 1948. The milestone document proclaims the inalienable rights that everyone is entitled to as a human being regardless of race, color, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. The most ambitious feature of the Declaration is its claim to be applicable and relevant across all cultures, political systems, religious traditions, and other contexts throughout the world, written as a secular product without religious reference in an effort to be adopted by governments in the name of man, not God. To date, it is the most translated document in the world with copies available in over 500 total languages. 

Largely the work of Eleanor Roosevelt in her role as chair of the U.N. commission responsible for writing the document, the UDHR was created with the intent of acting as sort of an international bill of rights. Not a single state opposed ratification of the document (though several abstained from the final vote), but that so many of the explicitly listed rights in the UDHR remain unachieved and for some, completely unattainable, it begs the thought that the document was far too idealistic for tangible equality and change in the first place. 

One of the primary regular criticisms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that it acts more as a western construct imposing its values on non-western countries, given its adoption during a time when the UN was largely dominated by western interests, but supporters of the Declaration reject this idea in its entirety: “The idea that [the Declaration] is some western construct that is unjustly imposed on the rest of the world…is idiotic,” says Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and former chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “The Declaration sets forth at the very beginning that the foundation of all our rights is the profound and equal dignity of each and every member of the human family,” George argues. “It is not the gift of kings or potentates or presidents or parliaments, but one that is inherent.”

What remains today, however, is that human beings are not living the experience that was promised by the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The fact is that the UDHR holds little tangible value as something that is not explicitly binding within the very territories, states, and countries it aims to serve. The experience of women in the United States, for instance, still today falls short in relation to the experience of non-Hispanic white men in the country in regards to equal pay, equitable healthcare, protection from gender-based crimes — the list goes on and on. So while a blanket declaration seems desirable on its face, the reality is that explicit protections and guarantees unique to the actual lived experiences of citizens of a country — the United States included — are needed in order to actually serve the best interests of human individuals. 

The Equal Rights Amendment in the U.S. is a perfect example of the kind of legislation that is really needed in order to fulfill the many premises of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the United States, the ERA would guarantee that the equality of rights under the law would not be denied or abridged by the U.S. or any state on the account of sex, providing deeper equality and equity to those that need it the most — in this case, women. This would bind the United States more directly and concisely to the pursuit of equality than the UDHR allows, and would require the U.S. judicial system, social services, and greater society to act in accordance to it — with explicit repercussions if violated.

The ERA, however, is just one small example of the need for more individualistic legislation throughout the world, and how “all-encompassing” declarations that aren’t tailored to a country’s specific population’s needs don’t always translate into equality. ERA ratification is a step in the right direction to manage the current shortcomings of the United Declaration of Human Rights within the United States, but on the anniversary of the UDHR’s global implementation, it is necessary to acknowledge its shortcomings as a document in its entirety.