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Hope in Hope: Domestic Implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Aadika Singh,
Human Rights Program
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December 11, 2008

The message of hope that President-Elect Obama and his team offer is intoxicating. The election that enabled its acceptance as a common mantra was undoubtedly historic. Even the Economist lauded the enduring ability of the American political machines and the American public to ‘surprise’ the international community. It’s a new era, a new world, we’d like to believe. We’ve waited so long and now everything will be different—better.

Sadly, that’s probably not going to be the case, as a group of 80-odd attendees heard at an ACLU panel and film screening last night at the Church Center for the United Nations. The panel, co-sponsored by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the U.S. Human Rights Network, the Opportunity Agenda, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, and Witness focused on the challenges of domestically implementing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Held on the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the UDHR, the ACLU-led event featured panelists from the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Rights Working Group, the NAACP, the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center and the Committee on International Human Rights of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.

While many celebrated and commemorated the UDHR’s birthday, Craig Mokhiber, Deputy Director of the New York Office for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, reminded the Church Center audience that we, in the United States and internationally, remain “in a period of crisis.” All 192 member states in the United Nations system are home to egregious human rights abuses. Mokhiber, speaking in an unofficial capacity, discussed how the past successes of the U.S. human rights movement have been eroded over the course of the last eight years. The American public has been asked to defer their human rights in the name of security and counterterrorism efforts, border protection policies, and the unencumbered operation of the free market.

However, erosions of rights and liberties began long before 9/11 and can’t be singularly pinned to the Bush Administration, stated Jumana Musa, Policy Director of the Rights Working Group, who spoke on how immigrants had been systematically targeted by failed U.S. policies for decades prior to the fall of the Twin Towers.

Mokhiber outlined that both Democratic and Republican U.S. administrations have opposed the incorporation of social, economic and cultural rights into binding international human rights treaties, that administrations pre-Bush refused to acknowledge the right to development and rejected international human rights mechanisms like the Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court. Additionally, the U.S. has maintained the “dubious distinction” of being one of only 2 countries that haven’t ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Somalia, with only a minimally functional government, is the other) and is the only developed nation in the Western hemisphere that continues to impose the death penalty.

In the struggle for racial justice, Damon Hewitt of the NAACP alerted the Church Center audience that U.S. anti-discrimination laws unfortunately demand that the victim of discrimination prove not only the effect of discrimination but also the intent. The ACLU’s report, Race & Ethnicity in America supports this fact, outlining how “for all constitutional violations of equal protection, intent to discriminate must be shown. The burden of proof of intent to discriminate is generally very high and, thus, such claims rarely succeed. As a result, it is very hard, if not impossible, to bring and prevail in intentional discrimination cases, deterring many victims from seeking legal remedies.”

In the sphere of reproductive rights, Cynthia Soohoo, Director of U.S. Programs at the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), highlighted the tremendous possibilities that exist for the Obama administration. The U.S. has the opportunity to implement national policy that adequately provides prenatal and obstetric care in a country where maternal mortality rates are inexcusably high and intensely racialized, where the failed policy of abstinence-only education prevails in too many classrooms, and where a lack of access to family planning methods leads not only to infringements on a woman’s right to choose, but also results in health hazards and competes with effective public STD prevention programs.

Sex Workers Project Director, Andrea Ritchie, followed Cynthia Soohoo by reinforcing that in cases where rape and sexual abuse is experienced by women and LGBT communities, international human rights law is much more protective than U.S. law. The UDHR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) mandate ccess to work which is freely chosen and accepted and just and favorable work conditions, principles that are undermined when sex workers are arbitrarily arrested and detained and when vulnerable migrant women are sexually abused.

A film screening, organized by Witness followed the panel and featured System Failure, a video documenting sexual abuse, beatings, forced medication and neglect at a California youth correctional agency. The video and larger advocacy campaign achieved sweeping legislation that began comprehensive reforms of the agency. The Center for Reproductive Rights also presented a film documenting the harassment of patients at a family planning center.

International law provides valuable tools, mostly under-utilized by domestic human rights activists, and an opportunity exists to more fully engage these tools. Shulman of the Committee on International Human Rights of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York underscored that if we can commit ourselves to the human rights principles outlined in the UDHR and Franklin Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms State of the Union Address “we’ll have done the right thing, we’ll have made our own country better, and we’ll have [more security].”

There’s hope in hope. The election of Barack Obama does not ensure change but does allow for its possibility. There are opportunities now in ways that weren’t even fathomable during the outgoing Bush administration. But they require work. Nobel laureate poet Seamus Heaney speaks about the difference between hope and optimism. Optimism doesn’t require any work; it’s just a vague sentiment that things will turn out alright in the end. Hope, however, places the burden of effort on the individuals audacious enough to believe in it. We will be allowed hope but only if we’re willing to work toward hopeful outcomes.

Celebrate the UDHR at 60 with the ACLU. Visit and sign the ACLU’s petition calling on the government and newly elected president to recommit to the UDHR. Read Human Rights Begin at Home, a new human rights publication on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and opportunities for domestic use, incorporation and implementation of the human rights framework, developed over the past sixty years.

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