Today, December 10, 2023, marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This document is recognized for enshrining fundamental and inalienable rights to which all human beings on this earth are meant to be entitled, such as non-discrimination and equal protection under the law. An aspirational document drafted in 1948 by a committee of representatives from various nation-states including the United States, Australia, China, Chile, France, Lebanon, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom, the UDHR generated critique from its inception, particularly as most of its drafters were representatives of colonial powers, and that its adoption coincided in time with the establishment of the settler-colonial state of Israel and the Palestinian Nakba.
Those leading the anti-colonial movements of the 1950s and 60s were quick to question the legitimacy of a human rights framework that accommodated ongoing colonization and human subjugation. And today, while many are celebrating the impact of the UDHR cohering the concept of human rights, the ongoing struggles—in Palestine, Congo, Sudan, West Papua, Haiti, and beyond—against genocide, militarism, and colonialism demand that we acknowledge the profound limitations of international human rights mechanisms like this document. If the human rights framework can neither prevent genocide nor protect marginalized people from displacement and ethnic cleansing, whose human dignity is recognized and protected? If our collective understanding of human rights allows the Global North to maintain social, political, and economic supremacy over the Global South through military operations and the unlimited extraction of natural resources like gas, cobalt, gold, oil, limestone, and copper, to whom do human rights obligations apply?
Living in the heart of the U.S. empire, it is clear to us at the Center for Constitutional Rights that the maintenance of any hierarchy of human life has created conditions of precarity for oppressed communities in the United States and is the ideological underpinning of the genocidal violence being unleashed and encouraged across the globe. The United States’ tolerance for and export of anti-LGBTQIA+ violence and policies targeting trans people and pregnant people created the framework in which Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill was passed this year; the United States’ repression and criminalization of domestic social movements advocating for freedom and dignity is being replicated by authoritarian regimes in India and Israel; and the United States’ impunity for war crimes and other crimes against humanity committed in every war since Vietnam has degraded the already contentious international humanitarian and human rights law mechanisms to devastating impact on those most vulnerable to state violence.
If there is anything to be gleaned from the horrors of this moment, it is that an expansive, non-Western view of human rights is a necessity. While so much of human rights defense has understandably sought to protect people from harms like racism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia, and ableism, the realization of affirmative, positive rights such as the right to food, the right to healthcare, the right to shelter, and the right to clean water begins to craft the foundations of an entirely different society. That future society is being contested now, and so we must be brave now. We must join students and activists who are occupying bridges and university halls, who are taking to the streets to firmly reject the white, imperialist human rights framework and imagining a world in which the preconditions of genocide are eliminated, where the harms of the violent, living history of colonial and imperial powers are addressed and repaired, and where we recognize our collective responsibility to protect human dignity beyond nation-state borders. This is what we declare as universal human rights, and the only declaration worth celebrating and fighting for.
For More Information, Partners Organizations to Follow:
- Defense for Children International–Palestine (DCIP)
- Adalah Justice Project
- Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR)
- Al Mezan Center for Human Rights
- Haitian Bridge Alliance
- Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI)
- Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG)
- Palestinian Feminist Collective
- The Friends of the Congo
- Third World Approaches to International Law Review
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.