Born of a need to recognize “the inherent dignity and…the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into being 60 years ago today. Its passage brought a worldwide awareness of the basic rights and protections to be enjoyed by all human beings everywhere and established the modern human rights system that provides the legal and moral authority for governments, advocates and attorneys to take action anywhere human rights are threatened. Sadly, as a result of eight years of disastrous policies by the Bush administration, one place where those rights are in jeopardy is right here at home.
Under the guidance of Eleanor Roosevelt, the United States was a driving force in the creation of the UDHR, and the document was clearly influenced by our nation’s own Bill of Rights. But, like the Bill of Rights, the UDHR has suffered as our policies and practices have not always lived up to the ideals for which it stands. In the last eight years in particular, the U.S. has fallen behind in its commitment to recognize and protect human rights at home and abroad. It is remarkable to think that the UDHR’s admonition that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind,”would one day apply to our own government.
We are hopeful that the new administration under President-elect Obama will recommit to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and use it as a guidepost for setting policy at home and abroad. This means protecting the rights to life, liberty and security of individuals; the right of persecuted individuals to seek asylum on our safe shores; the right to freedom of expression even when one’s views are in disagreement with that of the president; the right of all children to an equal education; the right to be treated equally regardless of race, religion, gender, national origin, disability or sexual orientation; and the right to be free from torture, abuse and inhumane treatment, among others. The shameful practices of the Bush administration have trampled those freedoms, but it is not too late to fix them.
To begin with, President-elect Obama should fulfill his pledge to restore America’s moral leadership by shutting down the prison at Guantánamo Bay and the military commissions that take place there on Day One of his presidency, by executive order. He should also issue an executive order on his first day in office that instructs all agencies to take immediate steps to end torture and abuse. And he should prohibit the rendition or transfer of any person to another country where there is a reasonable possibility the person would be subject to torture or abuse or detained without charge. Article 5 of the UDHR states that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Closing Gitmo and the military commissions and ending torture, abuse and rendition is crucial to fulfilling that obligation.
By taking these steps, President-elect Obama can start to make a clean break with the past and ensure that we will once again be the country the authors of the UDHR envisioned 60 years ago today. Reaffirming our commitment to the rights and freedoms laid out in that monumental document will send a clear message to the world that the U.S. is ready to lead by example and reclaim its role as a leader in human rights. Just as importantly, it will reaffirm our promise to ensure equality and justice for all at home. Then, and only then, we will be on the path to reclaiming the America we believe in.
To learn more about the UDHR and sign the ACLU’s petition calling on the new administration to recommit to the UDHR, go to www.udhr60.org