Saturday, December 7, 2013

Human Rights Day 2013

In leading up to Human Rights Day on December 10th, recent news seems to mask any progress: UN-authorized French troops intervene in CAR in response to the latter’s spiraling bloodshed; the revelation that the NSA collects 5 billions phone records daily from Americans and non-Americans alike; and the Libyan parliament passed legislation recognizing Islamic law as the centerpiece of its country’s laws and institutions. Not exactly leaps forward in protecting the rights to life, privacy and personal liberty, respectively.

Because we don’t regularly hear about human rights triumphs or human rights defenders of celebrity-like status, most of us miss a crucial progression: human rights situations across the globe have improved—in some cases dramatically so—over the past several decades, and those suffering human rights abuses, and their advocates, have never been louder or better organized.

A large part of where human rights stand today stems from Human Rights Day’s founding: on December 10th, 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed, and that day 20 years ago marks the anniversary of the creation of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. That day in 1993 is widely regarded as a

turning point for putting human rights causes at the center of the UN’s work. The position of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is to, within their and their office’s capacity, provide oversight of human rights conferences, guidance on best practices and leadership in alerting States of certain human rights abuses. Today, the High Commissioner and her Office (OHCHR) are two of the most visible and active human rights institutions in the international arena.

The special significance of this year’s Human Rights Day also reminds us of other human rights institutions created in the past two decades. In 2006, the UN Commission on Human Rights was rebranded as the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). As the most centralized human rights institution, the HRC works alongside the OHCHR and oversees and carries out the UN’s special procedures. This institutional architecture is further reinforced by the HRC’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) procedure, which puts every country’s human rights situation up for scrutiny. Beyond this scrutiny, the UPR allows interested parties to track and contribute recommendations on the human rights situations in other countries.

Despite the progression of human rights apparatuses since 1993 and the movement’s overall achievements, we still grapple with challenges. Protecting and promoting women’s and LGBTQ rights in particular has been an uphill battle: only a weakly-enforced UN Security Council Resolution in 2000 exists to protect the rights of women and girls during and immediately after an armed conflict, and only 15 countries worldwide have legally recognized marriage for same-sex couples. There are also myriad difficulties in addressing newer problems, such as so-called cultural imperialism and failed states, which make cooperation on creative solutions a bit more elusive. Overall though, most of these challenges are being challenged themselves by changing attitudes on and perceptions of the role of human rights in peoples lives.

In the end, Human Rights Day helps drive home one core belief: that between cultural relativism and universal values, human rights occupy a unique space that serves to maximize human dignity. December 10th is a day of both success and failure for international human rights. But with current momentum, especially over the last 20 years, achieving these goals is evolving into a real possibility. To quote the late Nelson Mandela:

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."


  1. Nice post, Zack! I especially like the phrase "between cultural relativism and universal values, human rights occupy a unique space that serves to maximize human dignity."