Why The UDHR Still Matters

One of the many lessons of the Second World War is that nations that mistreat their citizens are more likely to mistreat their neighbors. This, accompanied by the horrors of the war, led to the new United Nations drafting and endorsing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. The UDHR made human rights an essential element of foreign policy, but human rights are still too often an afterthought or more noteworthy for their absence. Does this mean the UDHR is a success?

The concept of “universal” rights is itself challenged. There is debate over whether “universal” values are indeed universal, and not just Western understandings. Admittedly those who make this claim most loudly tend to be authoritarian regimes that would prefer a return to traditional notions of sovereignty, when a government was free to do as it pleased within its own borders, and when what it did was its own business and no one else’s. Universal values and resurgent sovereignty are central to the debate over the future of the UDHR.

The UDHR provides a balance to the traditional view of sovereignty found in the UN Charter, which prohibits interference in another nation’s internal affairs. There is ambiguity in this, and the charter can be seen as a transitional document, where signatory states surrender some of their sovereign rights to this supranational authority and agree to be bound by its rules, including the UDHR, in the expectation this will lead to peace and stability. The Security Council would be a condominium of great powers managing global affairs, another hope that collapsed in the face of what is now called geopolitics—but sovereignty is more than great power competition, it is an erosion in many countries of the acceptance of the Western global construct. 

The most powerful states that could defend human rights are weakened in the eyes of a global audience. The United States, after its disastrous Middle Eastern adventures and its unstable politics, is disadvantaged, as is the European Union, since several of its members are not seen as legitimate defenders of rights by their former colonies.

Against the backdrop of geopolitics and resurgent sovereignty, human rights have been diminished both in their observation and their processes. The politics of the United Nations as an institution is murky and leads to strange outcomes. The most jarring dichotomy is that many members of the United Nations’s Human’s Rights Council (HRC), the intergovernmental body charged with protecting and promoting human rights, are themselves flagrant violators. To argue that China, Pakistan, Cuba, Russia—all HRC members—and similarly despotic regimes can be the overseers of human rights is inane and undercuts the credibility of the United Nations and the UDHR. 

The United Nations would be a disappointment to those who created it in 1945, but a powerful idea, once spoken, cannot easily be suppressed or recalled. The success of the UDHR is in its reshaping of global expectations. Consider the world before the UDHR and after. While the level of violation may have only gone down incrementally, human rights generally consistent with UDHR have become a global norm for the behavior of persons and states. 

Since the UDHR was ratified, no state leaders will come out against human rights. Authoritarian regimes must expend immense resources to withstand this expectation among their own peoples and their global audience, and while some argue that digital technologies for surveillance and control make authoritarianism unassailable, in fact authoritarianism is undercut by these same technologies, since they make violation harder to conceal and spread awareness of these shared norms, expectations, and judgements among the global audience. 

Where does this leave the UDHR? Is it a relic of a more optimistic time, an unenforceable compact for the present, or a guide for the future of societies? Perhaps it is all three, with the balance among them determined by the international community’s actions. It is still true that nations, especially powerful nations, that mistreat their citizens are more likely to mistreat their neighbors—and for this reason alone make the UDHR worth defending. But more importantly, even if progress is slow, unsteady, and at time, minute, every decade since 1948 has seen human rights become more central and the rule of dictators more indefensible. Everyone hopes the pace might be faster, but it is in the right direction.

James A. Lewis is a senior vice president and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

James Andrew Lewis
Senior Vice President; Pritzker Chair; and Director, Strategic Technologies Program