Human Rights Day slipped by on Monday without much attention in the popular press. Not yet a Hallmark holiday, Human Rights Day was named to commemorate the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR). A good number of Americans are conflicted in their views on the UN. According to the most recent research, Americans who were alive when the UN was established after World War II tend to have a higher opinion of it. The rest of us range from ambivalence to anger at the UN for providing Hugo Chavez with a forum to call President Bush "the devil" (no matter how we feel about the President).
The only mainstream media that routinely covers the UN, Fox News, never misses a chance to rail against it. Most daily newspapers just skip coverage of UN activities altogether, except for when really terrible things happen to the UN such as yesterday's destruction of UN offices in Algeria by terrorists.
The Declaration of Human Rights affirms the equality of all people, their worth as individuals and their inherent right to freedom of speech and belief. What could be more central, more basic to the beliefs of Americans then the idea that all people are born free and have the right to their religious and political beliefs and the right to express them without fear of imprisonment?
Where would the world be without the UNDHR? What body would have the moral authority to set the standard for nations everywhere? The answer: The United Nations. The United Nations, a body whose very existence is a testament to our commonalities over our differences, came together to affirm that all cultures value human rights. Because of the global human rights standards articulated by the United Nations, we know that all societies should be moving past the point of enslaving a portion of their people, discriminating against women or killing political dissidents.
It's true that these abuses to our fellow humans continue. Darfur is probably the worst example of a massive violation of human rights, though, unfortunately, human rights violations occur in every corner of the world every day. Gone are the days when those of us who live under a Constitution that establishes our rights, could sit back and wonder if those weren't just the problems of people with different belief systems.
When the world was a larger place and we had less understanding of other societies we may have been able to say "perhaps we shouldn't impose our views on other peoples." International human rights are not about any one nation imposing its views on another. Rather, it is about our collective global belief that, by virtue of being human, we are entitled to basic rights that our governments should protect.
Most of us consider the United States as a shining example of the provision of rights to its citizens. We are not always perfect in the execution but our Constitution really is the gold standard of freedom. Of course, this gold can be muddied. The constitutional rights we recognize have been questioned as a result of our policies at Guatanamo Bay and the limited legal procedural rights we have granted other detainees. Our government's commitment to human rights has also been questioned by as a result of the Abu Ghraib and our torture policies.
And that brings me back to the United Nations, the embodiment of the concept of a world where we all take care of each other, can be the mouthpiece of enlightenment.
Next week I want to talk about that hotbed of human rights abuses, China, because it's where U.S. policy and the UN's work to promote the rights of women – through UNFPA – wreck into each other to the detriment of China's women.