“Whereas 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…”When it was drafted and authored in 1948, it was a visionary proposition: to guarantee the rights expected in the most modern, cosmopolitan nations in the world for all human beings on the planet, regardless of their race, religion, gender, political or sexual preference, age, infirmity, or handicap.
They were, and are, universal rights. Not limited to any nation. Or any government. Such rights are not the special and proprietary purview any specific faction, party, or political movement. They would apply anywhere from Antarctica to the North Pole. From the bottom of the Mariana Trench to the top of Mount Everest. Anywhere subterranean, suborbital, or even beyond our planet’s gravitational pull. They would apply just as equally on the moon or Mars, or outside of our Solar System, if we ever went there as a species.
They were authored in 1948, in the aftermath and shadow of World War II, when the world managed, through six tumultuous years, to slaughter 72 million human beings out of the 2.3 billion people living on the planet at the time. About 3 out of 100 people on the planet were dead. Untold numbers were left in shock and states of injury. Out of this, the United Nations was born, in the hopes that humanity would never plunge themselves into such globally genocidal bloodshed again.
The world at the time was quite sincere, hopeful yet fearful. These were the years when the atomic bomb was still brand new. Though its advanced physics were not well understood by most of the populace, it was clearly to laypersons around the world to have, in theory, the power to exterminate all life on the planet. Two such bombs had slain over 100,000 people and had left about another 100,000 wounded. Though it would take 50,000 such bombs to destroy the global population, the size and scale of atomic bombs was going to grow alarmingly. The original bombs for Hiroshima and Nagasaki had, respectively, a yield of 15 and 21 kilotons. Weapons developed by the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War would theoretically yield a destructive force between 25-100 megatons. If a weapon of 12.5 megatons were to be exploded in New York City, scientists estimate it would kill 260,000 people within 24 hours of blast, radiation exposure, and fallout.
At the time, in 1948, the United States was the only nation on earth to possess such weapons. The year afterwards, in 1949, the USSR would declare to the world their successful creation of such a weapon. By 2008, nine nations are known or are suspected to have nuclear weapons, including India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel, who have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Other states around the world are known to be working on such weapons, or suspected to be able to assemble such a weapon given a well-funded secret operation or war mobilization.
Yet the specter that continues to raise its head in the post-9/11 world is the possibility of non-state actors — terrorists, separatists, or agents provacateur — using such weapons to alter the global economic and political landscape of the 21st Century. The Aum Shinrikyo cult in 1995 used chemical weapons to injure over 1,000 people and kill 12 in the Tokyo subways.
Yet conventional weapons are deadly enough. Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) regimes seek to curb the proliferation of the typical killers of the post-Second World War era: assault rifles, machine guns, grenades, mortars and rocket launchers, and all manner of portable anti-personnel, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles explosive weapons.
In the years since the Second World War, approximately 55 million people have died in Cold War, Post-Colonial Era wars of independence, civil wars, rebellions and insurrections, and violent terrorist attacks. Though there were some who died of heavy weapons (tanks and artillery) or by disease and deprivation, the vast majority have died because of small arms and light weapons.
Practically every single death is the result of a violation of humanitarian law and/or criminal law. Even if we invoke the “laws of war,” and the rights of states to conduct war against each other, tens of millions have died in a form of killing which has coined its own term: democide. According to R. J. Rummel, the political scientist who coined the term, 262 million people died in the 20th century due to governments forcibly exterminating populaces. This is far beyond the casualties of war. Deprivation and starvation, pogroms and clandestine murders are included.
The stakes for the 21st Century are enormous. If we can commit to guaranteeing the human rights of every human, from every people on the planet, hundreds of millions or even a billion or more humans can be saved from death. If we partially or even just “mostly” succeed, it is likely we are going to effectively concede to the deaths of tens or hundreds of millions of people.
Beyond the right to exist on Earth, the other Universal Rights guarantee a person’s individual rights towards a great range of activities: expression, spiritual belief, the fruits of one’s creativity, due process before the law, and so on. For what good would such a life be if it were merely a hell on earth?
Thus in the same year that George Orwell was writing the pivotal novel 1984 to parody the out-of-control bureaucracy of the United Kingdom, and to bring to mind the nature of the rightful limits of intrusive government, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was authored to express the human, individual nature of the basis of society.
1948 was a key year in many ways. Post-colonial wars of independence were changing the world from Asia to Latin America. The Treaty of Brussels was signed, as a precursor to NATO. The Marshall Plan was signed into effect to help reconstruct Europe. The Arab States and Israel went to war for the first time that year, with the conflict beginning on New Year’s Day with the siege of the Old Quarter of Jerusalem by Arab Muslim militants. The first casualty of the United Nations was suffered in trying to establish peace in the region. The split of India and Pakistan was still violently being fought over, and Mahatma Ghandi was assassinated. Both the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) were formally declared, which would lead to a desperate war on the peninsula. Venezuela overthrew its president by the armed means of a military junta.
In the United States, Harry S. Truman, concerned with the propogation to democratic principles and values, sent the key documents of the United States around the country on the first Freedom Train between 1947-1948. He also signed Executive Order 9981, ending the racial segregation of the U.S. armed forces.
It was in this global condition that Eleanor Roosevelt and her colleagues (John Peters Humphrey, Rene Cassin, P.C. Chang, Charles Malix, and others) proposed and had adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It is a remarkable, clear, and bold document which guaranteed many of the rights which many people in democratic states take as de facto ways the world should work. A thorough reading of it is always illuminating. How far we have come as a species. How how far we fall short. How much we have more to achieve on a global basis, even in our “advanced” nation states and civilizations.
So this evening, as I sit here in Books, Inc., in the city of Mountain View, California, I am raising a cup of iced tea to celebrate my freedoms: social, political, economic, spiritual, cultural, civil, humanitarian, and so on. There is an entire body of law, ratified by most nations on the planet, to uphold my rights to be.
That’s a powerful concept! And a compelling goal. To uphold those rights. To ensure we do not deprive them of others, even as we demand them for ourselves.
There are also implicit responsibilities when rights are asserted. Responsibilities to each other to respect and honor each other. To “first do no harm.” To then see what we need to improve most urgently and critically. I also have a cautionary mind, to consider what needs to happen here in our own neighborhood and around our own country, long before we lecture or demand of the rest of the world. Lest we come across as hypocrites. In a way, it will be inevitable. For it is often true about humans that we can more easily talk to others about what they have to improve before we face what is wrong with ourselves. Sometimes we will fail to see our own faults. Sometimes we will ignore what we know to be wrong, putting it off for a future day’s project.
For me, I’m committed to paying attention. Whether it is addressing the problem of homelessness in Mountain View and the Bay Area, education and healthcare around the world from here to the schools of Ikat in central Asia, or the Mama Maria Clinic in Kenya, or whether it is documenting the world on Wikipedia.
From these historic movements, and through these historic organizations in these historic times, we’ll see what happens in 2009 and beyond.
Onwards to adventure!