On December 10, 2008, the world celebrated Human Rights Day. This holiday marked the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly. The UDHR’s first sentence boldly states, “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

In thirty articles, the UDHR outlines people’s universal rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and security of person; the right to participate fully in cultural life; the right to an education; freedom from torture or cruel treatment or punishment; and the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. In setting the global definition for the words “fundamental freedoms” and “human rights”, this document has not only given human rights advocates around the world hope, it has provided a moral claim against governments to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights of their citizens.

The UDHR was adopted in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II. The terrible atrocities committed during that war exposed the lack of an international consensus on individual human rights. The document arose out of an understanding of the need to have a universal proclamation that would serve as a constant reminder of the unique and inalienable rights of their citizens. As a result, it serves as a safeguard to ensure the rights of people around the world are upheld and made explicit to all.

Though not legally binding, the UDHR has spurred the creation of many legally binding treaties, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, collectively known as the International Bill of Rights. Many of its articles have been incorporated directly into national constitutions, and its tenets of respect and dignity have become the cornerstone for rights movements around the world.

However, as we look at recent events around the world and in our own country, it is sometimes difficult to believe that we have come very far from the days when these rights had yet to be fully articulated. Israel’s recent, disproportionate attacks on Gaza have resulted in hundreds of deaths, most of which were civilian. For the past eight years, our government has openly pursued policies of torture and illegal detainment. China and Burma deny their citizens a full range of civil and political rights. Rape continues to be used as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A striking example has developed in just the past few weeks as the medical and public health infrastructure of Zimbabwe collapsed. A cholera epidemic has claimed the lives of at least 1700 people, with many more dying each day. The Zimbabwean government chose to respond by arresting and detaining teachers, doctors, and nurses rather than addressing the real problems at hand. It is terrifying that the government would respond to the situation by denying even more rights. A month later, the Zimbabwean government finally declared the epidemic a national emergency. It must now take concrete steps to provide support to its hospitals and medical school so that patients can receive the care they need. For its part, the international community must not only deliver humanitarian aid but also demand that a responsive and legitimate government is in place in Zimbabwe.

Though Human Rights Day has passed, we should continue to celebrate the decisive victories won over the last sixty years. We should also keep in mind that the UDHR will become little more than words on paper if we ignore our responsibility to demand that governments respect, protect, and fulfill their citizens’ human rights. Only through our individual and collective actions can we truly realize the noble intentions and fundamental assertions of this historic document that we commemorate today.

Sujal Parikh and Hasan K. Siddiqi are students at the University of Michigan Medical School and members of Physicians for Human Rights.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.