Human Rights Day And Our Movement Across the Moral Arc

Today is Human Rights Day, which commemorates the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first document of its kind to enshrine a global standard of moral principles and norms for all humanity. It is predicated on the simple but important notion set forth in Article One: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

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Pictured above is a summary of each right, which range from a right to due process and equal protection under the law, to a right to access educational and economic opportunities. The committee that drafted the document was drawn from all over the world, including the U.S. (represented by Eleanor Roosevelt), Canada, China, France, Lebanon, and India. Subsequently, it is drawn from many different sources.

The original, more extensive version of the UDHR can be found here.

It goes without saying that most of humanity has fallen way short of such aspirational principles, and given the present state of the world, one cannot help but look at this document as overly idealistic, if not naive.

Yet the UDHR nonetheless marks a watershed moment in history, as it is the culmination of a millennia of efforts by our species to create an intelligible, inviolable moral standard with which to treat one another. Human rights and civil liberties are easy to take for granted even as mere concepts, let alone as practices; the very idea would have been alien to most humans just a couple of centuries ago.

Consider the U.S. Bill of Rights, which many people are rightly recognize as a groundbreaking achievement in human development, and yet were highly idealistic for their time, and subsequently often violent then or often now. These notions are aspirational, in that they set a standard for us to work to; the fact that we are still making our way toward them does not lessen their value or importance. Big ideas take time to settle in and flourish, and given how far we’ve come in many different respects, one can imagine a future, however distant, where far more of us but these notions into practice — one step at a time.

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