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Human Rights & the Political Reawakening of America

David Sweet to the UN Association of Santa Cruz (12/10/02)

Let me start by confessing that though I’m a long-time supporter of the United Nations & of the world-wide struggle for human rights, I’m a neophyte member of this organization –- having been signed up just a few weeks ago when Pat Arnold put the arm on me on Peace Day in the Mission Plaza. So I was startled as well as being flattered when Jean Piraino called to see if I wanted to give a talk at my first meeting!

On the spur of the moment I doubted then that I’d have much to say on this occasion. But the subject of human rights is close to my heart; & on reflection I realize that it’s been at the center of all my work & thinking for half a century: as a student & aspiring journalist in the 50s, as a rural community development worker in Latin America in the 60s, as a UCSC professor of world history & Latin American & Southeast Asian studies in the 70s, 80s & 90s, as an off-&-on peace, justice & solidarity organizer, & now as website editor for Monterey Bay Educators Against War.

It also became clear as I did my reading, rereading & collecting of thoughts for this talk, that when we talk about human rights we mostly think of them in the abstract, as violated by foreign governments or by our own government, in places far away. But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains important messages for political activists working right here & right now, in Santa Cruz County, California. So that’s what I mostly want to talk about tonight, and invite you to talk about with me.

The beautiful & hopeful idea that all human beings have inherent dignity, & that all men & women possess equal & inalienable rights that cannot be denied by any authority, has been developing among us humans for a long time. In some embryonic form it’s present in in the scriptures of every religious tradition, & the customs of every culture. Children are entitled to nourishment, shelter, protection & a proper upbringing. Wives should be provided for by husbands. Life is precious; to spare it in victory is virtuous. The sick should be nursed back to health. The subjects of kings should be protected in times of war & fed in times of famine. The powerless are entitled to a measure of protection against the powerful, if only to guarantee the survival of society. People everywhere have understood such truths to be self-evident, in the words of our founders -- even when explicitly denied, or massively violated, by the current powers that be. Tyrannical governments are those that violate such basic ideas of justice in a systematic way.

The process of specifying, fine-tuning & codifying these principles into a bill of universal political & social rights has nevertheless advanced only slowly through the centuries. Magna Carta limited the power of the English monarchy in 1215; the Declaration of Rights established British parliamentary government in 1689. The French Revolution gave us the Declaration of the Rights of Man & the Citizen in 1789; the American Revolution produced our Constitution & Bill of Rights in 1791, & so on.

The advances of the 19th century included widespread emancipation from slavery, progress towards universal suffrage, universal public education, the elimination of flogging & capital punishment, & the establishment of the worker’s right to organize & bargain collectively. Little by little, the development of an international law of war left us with the idea that humane treatment should be guaranteed to civilians & refugees, even in the midst of wholesale slaughter. The League of Nations was another hopeful step forward, sabotaged in large part by the failure of the US to join.

Throughout this process, progress towards the establishment of universal principles for the defense & propagation of human rights has owed more to the hard work of social movement activists, revolutionaries & non-governmental agencies than it has to the wisdom of statesmen. Rights have been won, more often & more enduringly, than they have been granted. They have also been lost, as by working people in the US today, whenever vigilance has faltered.

The first serious international effort to codify the basic human rights & declare them universal occurred less than a lifetime ago. Following on the unprecedented devastation of World War II, the newly established United Nations set up a Human Rights Commission chaired by the American stateswoman Eleanor Roosevelt. That Commission’s momentous response to the world’s most recent harrowing experience of violence, cruelty & deprivation was inspired in part by President Franklin Roosevelt’s "Four Freedoms" speech, which had advanced the idea of guaranteeing the freedoms from want & from fear in addition to the political freedoms cherished by Americans, & by his1944 State of the Union Address, which had called for a "Second Bill of Rights" that would guarantee political rights by adding to them the right to "economic security & independence."

Two years later, on December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted unanimously by 56 of the then 64 member states of the UN, with no dissenting votes & only eight abstentions. It has enjoyed (or perhaps suffered from!) the legal status of a "non-self-executing treaty" for people everywhere ever since. This means in practice that its provisions lack, strictly speaking, the force of law (until enacted as law in any particular country), But they can function anywhere in the world -- whether rhetorically, politically or judicially -- as generally accepted standards for individual & collective behavior.

The adoption of the Universal Declaration was indeed a watershed moment in the world-wide struggle for justice & a sustainable peace; & I believe that it is very important that activists today never allow ourselves to become so discouraged by current events as to fail to remember & insist upon its transcendent importance. Since 1948, human rights have become a byword all around the world. They are a universal aspiration written into the constitutions of the great majority of countries, & they have achieved the status of law for many kinds of litigation. They are the emerging standard to which governments, as well as transnational corporations & insurgent armed forces, are increasingly held. No government today is fully legitimate if it is seen either at home or abroad to be a systematic violator of the human rights of its citizens. Many governments, including our own, have sometimes exercised a remarkable momentary restraint in the abuse of their powers because of a concern that not to do so might brand them as violators of fundamental rights that are now shared in principle, even if not so far in practice, by all human beings regardless of origin, social status or capacity.

We Americans exalt freedom; & we can legitimately claim to have contributed quite a lot to the formulation & field-testing of human rights principles through the two & a half centuries of our own struggles for a broader justice. Why then are we so woefully ignorant, & so callously negligent today, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Why are we so unreliable as defenders of human rights in our own country, & as promoters of human rights abroad?

One great barrier to understanding, & to the development of an effective human rights politics among Americans, is the insistence of our politicians & pundits that the US is by definition exemplary in its observance of human rights, that we are the world’s bright beacon, that our allies such as Israel, Japan, Chile & Great Britain violate human rights only exceptionally, & that the subject is therefore not at issue on our side of the world’s great divide. Active support for human rights is, in this light, essentially a tool of foreign policy.

In the foreign policy realm, as we conventionally see it, the permanent American concern for human rights – though taken for granted -- has of course to be balanced with essential business & national security interests. Administrations go back & forth in the degree of emphasis they assign to human rights; & left, liberal or progressive opinion berates the government whenever it gets too cozy with egregious violators of human rights.

In practice, the claim that human rights are being violated anywhere in the world has become a stick with which to beat our government’s designated enemies, and a scurrilous charge from which to defend our designated "friends." But the reasonable expectation that the US government will be proactive in supporting & guaranteeing human rights everywhere is much more honored in the breach than in the observance.

Understanding & mobilization around the ideal of human rights is also handicapped for Americans by the curious fact that the good work of such humanitarian NGOs as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or Witness for Peace has the unintended effect of defining human rights very narrowly in most people’s minds -- as the right to be free from arbitrary detention, torture, extra-judicial killing or genocide. Americans familiar with our own Bill of Rights will add to that list almost instinctively the suppression of free speech, press, worship, assembly & electoral participation; & most of the time we will be satisfied to leave it at that. Those particular abuses, we’re proud to say, are no longer customary in our country; & we have judicial mechanisms to correct the occasional unfortunate slip-up. So we Americans can be generally complacent about the human rights situation in the US; & with a glance at Japan, Western Europe, Canada, Australia & New Zealand, we tend to think that in the advanced capitalist & English-speaking countries, things are more or less okay.

Lulled by the media into accepting some version of this conventional American discourse on human rights, I think that for fifty years we have been missing a major opportunity to help bring about the political realignment & the political reawakening that is so desperately needed in our country today.

Many of us have followed year by year the slow process of international negotiations aimed at broadening, refining & implementing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While doing so we have developed a well-justified critique of the refusal by successive US administrations to join wholeheartedly with the rest of the human race in seeking to refine these principles, & their failure to exercise leadership in that process. We have raged as US negotiators repeatedly sidetracked, watered down, sabotaged & even boycotted those vital international discussions; & we have winced as successive Presidents signed conventions that the Senate then refused to ratify.

The record of US participation in the campaign to broaden & increase the implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is indeed a bleak & shameful one. It is of a piece with the general throwing of our country’s weight around in world affairs, with our government’s insistence on militarization & neo-liberalization at whatever cost to humanity & nature, & with its refusal since the beginning to cooperate on an equal basis in the world-wide operations of the UN, or even to pay its agreed-upon dues on a regular basis.

But there is another side to the discussion of America’s relationship to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to the work of consolidating the Declaration’s bright promise for the future of human life on this benighted planet. This other side is to take the Declaration seriously as a program for social & economic reform right here in the USA. That is a possibility that has been looked at more closely by activists since the 50th anniversary of the Declaration in 1998; but it is still very far from fulfilling its potential for transforming political discussion, & channeling political struggle here at home.

To get at this possibility, let me suggest a simple exercise. Take half an hour to read over carefully the original text of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as adopted back in 1948, & signed & ratified by the US. The Declaration is available on the web at http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html, or in any public or university library. Copies can be obtained from any chapter of the United Nations Association. While you are reading through the Declaration, think one by one about each of the rights it specifies, & about how well you think each of them is honored in the US today.

Focus first on yourself as an individual, asking whether you are presently enjoying each right fully, & whether you think that you can count on it in the foreseeable future. Then focus on the microcosm of American society that exists all around us here in Santa Cruz County: on the quarter of a million people of differing race, class, gender, age group, health status & sexual orientation, that are our neighbors. Ask yourself, right by right, whether each of these human rights is enjoyed fully & can be counted on by our fellow-citizens & residents here in this richly endowed & beautiful corner of our country.

Keep a pen & paper at hand while you go through this exercise; & make a brief note when you run into a basic human right that you think is not yet fully operative here among us. Remember as you work that according to the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the guarantee of human rights by the rule of law is necessary both to prevent the people from having recourse to rebellion against tyranny, & to promote friendly relations between the nations.

Then review your notes with an eye to underlining any surprises, & drawing out the most pressing issues for Americans today that have been unveiled by your research. Ask yourself what the implications for political action here at home might be, if we could somehow draw people's attention to the ways in which the basic standards set out for us in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remain to be established in the United States today.

Be bold. Think radically. Take the basic human rights principles seriously as ideals that could actually be achieved if we made up our minds to put them into practice here & now. Then go forth to talk with your friends, neighbors & workmates about them.

For fifty years Americans on the Left have been consistently hopeful & supportive in our attitude towards the international campaign for human rights. But we have squandered an opportunity by failing to join in it directly. I think that we must learn to do everything in our power, year in & year out, to publicize these standards, keep them on the minds of ordinary Americans, and hold them up to our political representatives at every opportunity.

I think we should be trumpeting the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration, marching & tabling for them, handing them out in tracts, talking about them in every school, writing about them in letters to every editor, making sure that everybody in our county, & in our country, gets to be as familiar with those principles as Americans once were with the Bill of Rights, & with the liberation texts of the Jewish & Christian Bible.

I think we should also treasure those principles as Americans, and refer to them always alongside the principles of the Bill of Rights -- understanding that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a distillation of the most basic universal aspirations of our human kind, one that is of special importance to Americans because it was in large measure made possible precisely by struggles for justice waged for over two centuries by Americans like ourselves.

We should acknowledge and be thankful that it is now our great privilege & responsibility finally to help put the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into practice in our own country -- so that once more the American example, & ideas rooted directly in the American experience, can make their unique contribution to the fulfillment of those sacred principles for people everywhere on earth.


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