December 10 marks the fifty-fifth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To many of us in the human rights movement, it feels more like a funeral than a celebration.
What are we mourning? Not only that people’s rights are being violated every minute of every day. This has continued uninterrupted since the beginning of recorded history. What is new is the open attack on the legal and institutional structure of human rights, a system established after two horrific world wars to protect the powerless from the predatory.
Who is leading the assault? Not the scattered bands of terrorists, who rely on fear and chaos to magnify their threat and disguise their essential weakness. It is the world’s sole superpower–the primary architect of the United Nations and its Universal Declaration–that is now shaking off all legal constraints to unleash the most destructive military machine in history.
The Bush Administration seeks nothing less than the open establishment of empire–termed “full-spectrum dominance” in the new Pentagon papers. Since open empire is incompatible with a post-imperialist world order based on human rights and the rule of law, the law must go. This means bypassing the “useless debating society” formerly known as the Security Council, when it refuses to rubber-stamp the unlawful invasion of Iraq.
In the guise of attacking and eliminating evil, our government is attacking and eliminating the full spectrum of rights designed to protect human life and dignity: arms control and nuclear nonproliferation, environmental and labor laws, human rights and the laws of war, even universal jurisdiction for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Dick Cheney said it best: “We can no longer operate under twentieth-century standards” in fighting a global war that “may never end, at least not in our lifetime.”
The new world emerging from the rubble of twentieth-century standards joins state repression and terrorism in an increasingly violent embrace. In America, constitutional rights to due process, privacy, free speech and assembly, and bodily integrity are endangered; Guantánamo prisoners are shackled and caged like animals without being charged with any crime; suspected terrorists are transferred to countries where they will be viciously tortured; Arab and Muslim men are singled out for “special” registration, mass detention and arbitrary deportation; and peaceful protesters are assaulted with taser guns by increasingly militarized police.
With dangerous extremists on all sides planning for global war, we should remember that the modern idea of human rights law emerged from the slaughterhouse of World War II. Faced with the public outcry “never again!”, the victorious powers had no choice but to recognize the full range of human rights–not only civil, political and religious freedoms, but also rights to health, education, housing, work, social security and adequate livelihood. If taken seriously, this revolutionary idea had the potential to overturn, through peaceful legal means, the established distribution of political and economic power.