The UDHR Is 70. America Needs to Do Better in Following It.

This language from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights echoes that of the Declaration of Independence. And yet, America still struggles with upholding these global principles. (Photo Credit: Jordan Lewin/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

On the U.S. version of The Office, tasked with picking a health care plan for Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Dwight Schrute, assistant to the regional manager, prided himself on slashing benefits “to the bone” in an effort to save the company money. He rationalized his decision-making with the following thought: “In the wild, there is no health care. In the wild, health care is, ‘Ow, I hurt my leg. I can’t run. A lion eats me and I’m dead’.”

Dwight Schrute is, of course, a fictional character, and his attitude is an extreme one. Nevertheless, his mentality reflecting the notion that health care is no guarantee and the idea he needs to select a plan for his Scranton office at all are indicative of a very real issue facing Americans to this day. If health care is a right, why does it feel more like a jungle out here?

In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of its signing, Tom Gjelten, NPR’s Religion and Belief correspondent, penned a piece concerning the “boundlessly idealistic” Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR, across its 30 articles, elaborates the central premise that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

To this point, the Declaration speaks against discrimination based on any identifying characteristic. It opposes slavery, torture, and unfair treatment at the hands of law enforcement and the courts. It asserts that all persons have the right to a nationality and to seek asylum from persecution. They also possess the right to marry, the right to their property, freedom of expression/thought and religion, and freedom to peaceably assemble and participate in government. Other stated liberties include the right to work for equal pay, the right to leisure, the right to health, the right to education, and the right to appreciate culture.

What is striking to Gjelten and others is how the UDHR is designed to be applicable across cultures, political systems, and religions. It is truly meant as a universal set of standards, one with secular appeal. That is, it is a human document, not a God-given list of commandments.

Then again, in some contexts, this last point might be a bone of contention. As Gjelten explains, Saudi Arabia abstained from the original unanimous United Nations Assembly vote because of issues with the Declaration’s views on family, marriage, and religious freedom, in particular the idea that one can freely change religions, which can be considered a crime. In general, some of the strongest objections to the language of the UDHR have come from the Islamic world, though this does not imply that Islamic law and these rights are incompatible.

There were others who abstained from the vote in 1948 as well, though. The Soviet Union and its bloc states were part of the eight abstentions, presumably because of the stipulation about people’s right to freely expatriate. South Africa, a country then predicated on racial segregation, was also part of the eight. Even some American conservatives at the time had their qualms about the UDHR’s wording, convinced the sentiments about economic rights sounded too socialist. Actually, that probably hasn’t changed all that much. In certain circles, socialism is indeed a dirty word.

The thrust of Gjelten’s piece is more than just admiration for the Declaration’s principles and the work of Eleanor Roosevelt as chair of the UN commission responsible for drafting the document, though, deserved as that admiration is. 70 years after the fact, America’s commitment to upholding its articles is not above reproach. Furthermore, in an era when a growing sense of nationalism and resistance to “globalism” pervades politics here and abroad, the UDHR’s spirit of universality and international fraternity is seriously put to the test.

Gjelten cites two areas in which the country “still falls short” as a subset of the “struggles for civil and political rights that were yet to come” subsequent to the UDHR’s approval vote. One is equal pay for equal work, a topic which deserves its own separate analysis and, as such, I’m not about to litigate it at length here. Suffice it to say, however, that I—alongside many others—believe the gender gap is very real. It also disproportionately affects women of color, occurs across occupations and industries, and is frequently mediated by employer practices that rely on prior salary history as well as policies enforced in individual states designed to specifically disenfranchise female earners. Do with these thoughts as you will.

The other area in which the U.S. has fallen short, as alluded to earlier, is universal health care. Article 25 of the Declaration states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”

As a fact sheet on the right to health from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the World Health Organization elaborates, the right to health includes access to health care and hospitals, but it’s more than that. It includes safe drinking water, food, and adequate sanitation. It includes adequate housing and nutrition. It includes gender equality, healthy environmental and working conditions, and health-related education and information.

But yes—it does include the “right to a system of health protection providing equality of opportunity for everyone to enjoy the highest attainable level of health.” It doesn’t say this is a privilege only for those who can afford it.

This is an essential point in the health care “debate.” Should health care be a right for all? While you’re entitled to your opinion, Mr. or Ms. Schrute, if you say no, it’s hard to know how to continue the conversation beyond that. This applies both for naysayers on the left and on the right. Don’t hide behind the idea “we can’t afford it.” Don’t hide behind the Affordable Care Act, which is no guarantee to survive given repeated attempts to sabotage it. If you believe health care is a human right, let’s work backward from there. I mean, all these other countries have some form of single-payer health care. Why shouldn’t we—and don’t tell me it’s because we spend too much on our iPhones


Tom Gjelten’s piece is more concerned with the history behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its formation. Like any good historian, though, he’s got a mind for the Declaration’s larger implications and its potential impact in the years and decades to come. Getting back to that whole growing nationalism thing, Gjelten notes how playing identity politics often draws strength from ethnic or religious conflict.

To be clear, this trend in increasing strife between different groups isn’t just an American phenomenon. Around the world, political leaders have risen to power by aggressively promoting division and/or appealing to a sense of national pride through brutality and curtailing human rights. Rodrigo Duterte. Xi Jinping. Narendra Modi. Viktor Orban. Vladimir Putin. Mohammed bin Salman. The list goes on. There will be more to come, too. Jair Bolsonaro was recently elected president in Brazil. His mindset carries with it a promise for a regressive shift in his country’s politics.

Still, even if we’re not the only ones coping with societal change, if America is truly the greatest country in the world, we should be setting the best example in terms of adherence to the UDHR’s principles. Meanwhile, even before Trump, our country’s commitment to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has been uneven.

Criminal sentencing/policing disparities and states’ insistence on use of the death penalty. The lack of a universal health care infrastructure. Failure to protect the rights of vulnerable populations, including women/girls, people with disabilities, and the LGBT+ community. War crimes overseas and at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. Surveillance of global communications. And since Trump has taken office, our performance on these fronts has only gotten worse, notably in categories like foreign policy, the rights of non-citizens, and safeguarding First Amendment rights. If this is “America First” and “making America great again,” there’s a piece of the puzzle missing.

A lot of this may sound a bit too SJW for some. We should all respect one another’s rights. Everyone should be afforded the same opportunities to succeed. Let’s all hold hands and sing songs together around the campfire. I get it. There are practical considerations which complicate implementing solutions to global ills as well. Agencies and nations have to be willing to work together to achieve common goals, and who pays what is always a bother. On the latter note, I tend to think some cases are overstated or represented in a misleading way by politicians and the media. Cue the myriad “Bernie/AOC doesn’t know what he’s/she’s talking about” articles. Let’s all move closer to the center because it has worked so well for us until now.

The thing is that many of the principles covered by the UDHR reflect policy directions voters want and can agree on. When Republicans came to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, they were unsuccessful in part because of the public outcry in support of the ACA. Turns out people like being able to afford health care—who knew? Regarding equal pay for equal work, that shortfall for working women is one that whole families could use if given a fairer salary or wage. Not to mention it’s, you know, the morally right thing to do.

Though we may be susceptible to the words of political figures that would keep us at odds with each other (and secretly may even like it that way), we must continually put the onus on our elected officials to authentically represent all the people within their jurisdiction. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a good place to start. As suggested before, let’s consider the change we hope to see before capitulating or saying “no” outright. A more equal America is one which will benefit all its inhabitants—from top to bottom and over the long term. 

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