Why We Should Care About Human Rights: The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights At 70

Michael Posner
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As we mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, the main lesson we need to draw is that working on human rights is not a sport for the short-winded. It’s a marathon, not a sprint­—and perhaps even an ultra-marathon, with no clear finish line.
By Michael Posner
On December 10, the United Nations will mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In an era of spreading nationalism and gross violations in places like Yemen, Myanmar, South Sudan and Venezuela, it is fair to ask whether the Universal Declaration and the global human rights movement have improved the human condition.  And given these contemporary challenges, there’s the further question of where we go from here.

The Universal Declaration emerged from the horrors of World War II, which resulted in more than 65 million deaths, including 6 million Jews and hundreds of thousands of others who were systematically murdered during the Holocaust. Stunned by this carnage, the UN’s framers created an organization with three core objectives: advancing collective security, promoting economic development in poorer countries and, for the first time, making the protection of human rights a global priority. The UN adopted the declaration on December 10, 1948, by a vote of 48-0, with eight abstentions. Eleanor Roosevelt, who led the effort, called it a “Magna Carta for all mankind.”

The Universal Declaration broke new ground in two important ways. First, it universalized human rights, asserting that all people are entitled to these protections by virtue of our humanity. Put differently, we are born with rights and do not depend on governments to bestow them upon us.

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Michael Posner is a Professor of Business and Society and Director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.