The recognition, preservation and expansion of human rights took a substantial step forward on Dec. 10, 1948, when the United Nations approved a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, presented the declaration to the gathered assembly, which approved it by unanimous consent (though a few nations abstained).
The U.N., which formally came into existence on Oct. 24, 1945, had established the following year a Commission on Human Rights tasked with drafting a human rights declaration.
Roosevelt was elected commission chair, and “for the next two years, [she] dedicated most of her energy to commission duties,” according to the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project. “She insisted that the Declaration be written in clear accessible language so that it might be readily embraced by peoples of the world. She exerted similar pressure on the U.S. State Department, arguing that for the declaration to have any impact it must not be seen as an American or Western dominated document.”
A 30-article document emerged from this process, setting forth basic human rights in order to establish “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”
The goal of the declaration is clear from its prologue: “That every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”
Discussions about the effectiveness of declarations, or even international entities like the U.N., are common, and have taken place since the U.N. was established.
Yes, the nations that signed the declaration (including the U.S.) have failed to fully and faithfully live up to the ideals it sets forth.
Yes, human rights violations continue to take place daily – even in nations that are party to this agreement and that are members of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Yes, more work can and should be done by individual nations and by the U.N. and other local, regional and international governmental organizations to promote and defend human rights.
Yet, too often such discussions shift attention away from a foundational truth: Everyone (especially goodwill people of faith) should support unequivocally any effort to promote, defend and expand human rights for all people.
Baptists, of all people, should be at the forefront supporting human rights for all, as the late Glen Stassen, former Fuller Theological Seminary professor of ethics, explained in a 2012 video interview.
“The first comprehensive doctrine of human rights in history was written by a Baptist, Richard Overton. He was part of the [John] Smyth group that joined the Waterlander Mennonite Church,” Stassen explained. “He was influenced, of course, by the original Baptist push for religious liberty, but then it became freedom of the press … justice for the poor … the right to vote regardless of your religion.”
“It’s our baby. We need to defend human rights,” he said. “The struggle for human rights is our Baptist struggle.”
To that end, EthicsDaily.com is posting a series focused on some of the U.N. Declarations’ articles, beginning this week and continuing into next week to “book-end” Human Rights Day (Dec. 10).
I hope that our readers find this series to be a helpful resource in discussing human rights, learning more about the components of the U.N. Declaration, and joining the struggle to promote and defend the rights of all people.
In her address presenting the document for consideration to the U.N., Eleanor Roosevelt observed, “We have much to do to fully achieve and to assure the rights set forth in this declaration. But having them put before us with the moral backing of 58 nations will be a great step forward.”
Nearly seven decades have passed since the declaration was approved, and there remains “much to do to fully achieve and assure the rights” of all people.
Lamenting that more progress hasn’t been made might be easy but doesn’t change anything; neither does acting as if no progress has been made.
What is needed is an honest assessment of where we are and from where we’ve come, coupled with a renewed commitment to do all we can to secure and support human rights for everyone.
For goodwill Baptists, and all goodwill people of faith, taking time to recall, reread and reflect on the 1948 declaration, and then recommitting ourselves to promote, protect, expand and defend the rights it delineates, seem a good place to begin.
After all, “it’s our baby.”
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series for Human Rights Day 2017 (Dec. 10).