10 December 2010
HUMAN RIGHTS DAY. Failures and Triumphs

December 10 celebrates Human Rights Day. On that day, in 1948, the new United Nations adopted the seminal Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt who chaired the UN Commission that drafted the Declaration, hailed it as a “Magna Carta for Mankind.”

The Declaration was a magnificent advance in humanity’s arduous struggle for human rights. It came about in the aftermath of World War II when the Nazi experience and the Holocaust exposed a regime in which the individual counted for nothing. As the delegates gathered in San Francisco to establish the United Nations, the cry “Never Again” heralded the resolve to protect the individual through international human rights.

The Declaration sets forth basic civil and political rights – freedom of speech, religion and assembly, the right to a fair trial, all much like our own Bill of Rights. The Declaration also deals with economic and social rights, such as health care, education, the right to work, social security and other elements of justice in a civilized society. While these are “rights,” they have been viewed more as aspirations.

With the Declaration as the guide, the UN developed specific treaties dealing with genocide, civil, political and economic rights, racial discrimination, torture, rights of women, rights of children and other human.

An impressive edifice of international human rights law resulted, but its weakness came from lack of implementation. For three decades after the Declaration, authoritarian regimes and human rights abusers prevailed in most of the world. In the late 1970’s human rights were advanced when they became a foreign policy objective for the US and other western nations. Communication advances also helped make human rights advocates more knowledgeable and more insistent. By the mid 1980s, military and authoritarian regimes fell in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Spain and Portugal. In 1989 the Berlin wall also crumbled, signaling the demise of Communism and the rise of emerging democracies in Latin American and Eastern Europe. The human rights revolution was beginning.

But before the century’s end, we faced the specter of ethic cleansing and tribal warfare fueled by ruthless leaders. Genocide and crimes against humanity erupted in Cambodia, Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, Sudan and other nations. Humanitarian law which had been developed in the Geneva Conventions proved inadequate to stem this tide.

Another blow to human rights was the increase in terrorism. Efforts to combat terrorism often trumped adherence to liberties. Nations, including the US, engaged in torture, rendition and illegal surveillance. The Obama administration has denounced such human rights violations, but security concerns continue to temper human rights advocacy.

So how should we view this Human Rights Day? Somberly, but not without hope. There have been both good and bad developments. The bad is the continued abuse of human rights, even genocide, in too many parts of the world. The bad is that some emerging democracies, are now slouching toward authoritarianism.

The good is that the International Criminal Court (ICC) has been established and has started its work to try criminal human rights abusers. The US, once reluctant to participate in the ICC is cooperating with it. The international law of human rights has been established well and is regarded as universal law. Non-governmental human rights organizations are still vigorous and often influential. Most important, untold numbers of people across the globe believe in human rights, in individual worth and dignity. They will not remain silent. The concept of a civilized society faithful to human rights is powerful and enduring. In the unsteady march of civilization, let us hope that human rights will triumph.


Jerome J. Shestack was a previous President of the American Bar Association (1997-1998), who has been regularly cited by the "National Law Journal" as one of the "100 Most Influential Lawyers" in the United States. A world leader in the international human rights movement, Mr. Shestack served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva under President Carter. He also served as a member of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and as a Commissioner of the U.S. Presidential-Congressional Commission for the Improvement of the Effectiveness of the United Nations. He chaired the International League for Human Rights for 20 years. Mr. Shestack has also been Counselor to the American Society of International Law, and a is former board member of the American Arbitration Association. Mr. Shestack currently serves on the governing body of the International Bar Association and regularly interacts with the leaders of national bars, Attorneys General and Ministers of Justice of leading nations. Jerome Shestack has long been a leader in the American Bar Association (ABA). Before becoming ABA President, he served on the Board of Governors and Executive Committee of the ABA. For six years he served on the ABA's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, which makes recommendations to the President and the Senate on the qualifications of all prospective federal judges. He also served as chair of the ABA's Section of Individual Rights, chaired the first ABA Commission on the Mentally Disabled, chaired the ABA's Standing Committee on Legal Aid and was a founder of the ABA's Pro Bono Center. The author of more than 200 articles for law journals and other periodicals, Jerome Shestack has taught at Northwestern Law School and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, which awarded him an Honorary Fellowship. He is also an Honorary Fellow of Columbia Law School and has three honorary Doctor of Law degrees. Mr. Shestack is also a life member of the American Law Institute.