Seventy-two years ago this week, the nations of the world adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, forever enshrining the lessons of two world wars. An iconic American leader, Eleanor Roosevelt, led this global effort, chairing the negotiation of a document that reflects the best of American leadership: a search for shared values, celebration of the dignity of human life, freedom from government interference with life and liberty, promotion of basic civil and political rights and the promise of equality and non-discrimination.
To think of what Roosevelt would see today. For four long years, Donald Trump has turned his back on these values. He has harmed Americans, frustrated our allies, and ignored those who most need American support worldwide. He has shown disdain for the children kept in cages along our southern border, attacked the democratic role of a free press, damaged our right to free and fair elections and discriminated on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity and gender.
While people protest for their rights worldwide, online and off, it is time for the United States to recommit to the basic norms of democratic life embedded in the Universal Declaration.
But a simple return to an imagined world of pre-Trump human rights is not enough.
The United States is, for instance, likely to seek to return to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the central human rights body of the UN system, but with what objectives? We can challenge the opponents of human rights, but with what message? We can support human rights activists at home and abroad, but with what tools?
American recommitment to human rights must work for the world and for the people of the United States. It should rest on three basic pillars, meant for an era much different from the post-war period that produced the Universal Declaration in 1948.
First, leadership. There is no doubt that the United States must join the world as an advocate for and protector of fundamental rights. Human rights values are American values, too. We should rejoin the Human Rights Council with a renewed fight to improve it—first by preventing the world’s most egregious human rights violators from ascending to Council leadership, and then by isolating Council members who ignore the principles of the Universal Declaration.
America’s global leadership has also suffered from decades of rejection of the basic human rights treaties that protect women, children, people with disabilities and other marginalized groups. Finally ratifying those treaties would reflect our aspirations and our interests in restoring American leadership.
Second, we need a human rights agenda for the digital age. The internet has brought massive human rights opportunities for people worldwide—the chance to engage across borders, to access vast amounts of information, to organize protest and to advocate for their rights without the need for a billionaire’s megaphone.
But the digital age has also wrought undeniable damage to things we as Americans, and the world community, hold dear. Governments (including ours) have abused the tools of surveillance to damage the pillars of democratic life. Authoritarians use the internet to criminalize opposition and dissent.
Massive companies often put their business models before human rights, taking over the public square worldwide but failing to manage it to protect public institutions, the concept of truth, and, most importantly, individuals from harassment, hate and violence.
Our approach to human rights should recognize that governments are the most consequential abusers of rights, but they are not the only threat. Companies – and not only technology companies, and certainly not only American ones – need to be held to fundamental standards, through democratic processes, so that they respect the human rights everyone deserves.
Finally, let’s recommit to a central place for economic rights, the “freedom from want” that Eleanor’s husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, proclaimed nearly eighty years ago. Americans naturally speak the language of civil and political rights—FDR’s first freedom was freedom of speech and expression—even if we do not always practice them perfectly.
The Universal Declaration proclaims the importance of economic rights. In keeping with the declaration, we must pursue an agenda, both at home and abroad, that protects against the unfairness, extreme poverty, and inhumane treatment caused by corruption, concentrations of wealth, and capture of political processes.
As we celebrate the achievement of Eleanor Roosevelt and those who crafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we should recognize this simple truth: for the United States to restore its place in the global community, we must uphold the fundamental rights of all Americans, and do our part to support and defend those rights around the world.
Photo by Jean-Marc Ferré