At the close of every great and violent social conflict comes due a bill of rights. Following the barbarism of World War II, the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, along with the Nuremberg trials, overturned the doctrine, which held sway among Western nations, that there are no rights other than those conferred by states. Individual liberty and the guarantee of a decent and secure life, the declaration proclaimed, were rights bestowed not by blood or borders but by universal human dignity.
From the terrors of the cold war came the hope that the promise of the UN declaration would be fulfilled, that resources consumed by the superpower contest would be put toward human needs and that repression would no longer be tolerated in the name of national security or sovereignty. But more than a decade into our post-cold war world, these hopes remain largely unrealized. While politicians who commit atrocities within their own borders can no longer confidently hide behind diplomatic immunities, the declaration’s hope for the “advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want” remains a compelling but nonetheless chimerical ideal in light of deepening global poverty and inequality and concentrating corporate and military power.
In A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Mary Ann Glendon argues for a new, post-cold war interpretation of the declaration’s vision and unfulfilled potential. While stressing the declaration’s ongoing relevance–calling it the “parent document” of all subsequent international human rights treaties–Glendon believes that we have lost sight of the charter’s true significance. The declaration did more than simply add social entitlements to the individual freedoms found in the US Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. By synthesizing individual and social rights in a way that made them mutually dependent, the declaration presented a “vision of freedom as linked to social security, balanced by responsibilities, grounded in respect for equal human dignity, and guarded by the rule of law. That vision was meant to protect liberty from degenerating into license and to repel the excesses of individualism and collectivism alike.”
But the cold war drove a wedge through the declaration’s “organic unity.” The two superpowers “could not resist treating the Declaration as an arsenal of political weapons: each yanked its favorite provisions out of context and ignored the rest.” The United States and its allies stressed political freedoms, while the USSR and other socialist nations emphasized guarantees to education and healthcare. “What began as expediency hardened into habit, until the sense of an integrated body of principles was lost.” The task at hand, Glendon writes,is to “reunite the sundered halves of the Declaration” and to re-establish the link between liberty and social security.