The Universal Declaration at 75 – Looking Back and Forward

Jacqueline Bhabha

On December 10th, 2023, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the seminal and aspirational foundation for post World War II human rights principles, will turn 75. At the time of its signing, the Declaration encapsulated the contradictions of a world order in which the signatory states proclaimed “the inherent dignity and…the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” while many still maintained colonies whose peoples were denied those very equal rights, including the right to self-determination. But the Declaration also highlighted the widespread belief that “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind” could be avoided by adoption of common international standards of achievement both in the civil and political realm of liberty, equality and freedom, and in the social and economic realm of freedom from want, hunger, disease and ignorance. Both aspects of the Declaration are of utmost relevance today. The legacy of colonization continues to perpetuate injustice, and violent and barbarous acts continue to outrage and destroy. But the existence of common standards as a driver of progress has also had many positive spinoffs. Anniversaries offer opportunities to look back and forward. On December 10th this year,  I will think back to the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the Universal Declaration and my activity during each as a teacher, human rights lawyer and activist, and I will look ahead to human rights challenges for the next quarter century as I see them.

I will remind myself that on the 50th anniversary, together with colleagues at the University of Chicago where I was then directing the University’s Human Rights Program, I founded Scholars at Risk, an effort to create academic solidarity among privileged and safe scholars for their peers facing persecution and risks to life. Like scientists, journalists and writers, we argued, so too academics should peer outside their ivory towers and do what they could to support colleagues facing terrible threats to their life and freedom because of their beliefs, identity or both. Fortunately our initiative has blossomed, and now hundreds of universities across the world, including Harvard, have vigorous Scholars at Risk programs that provide life changing support to endangered colleagues. A work in progress to be sure, with need far outstripping the supply of safe spaces, but a worthwhile contribution to protecting human rights nonetheless.

I will also remind myself that on the 60th anniversary, as Director of Harvard’s University Committee on Human Rights Studies and together with many colleagues and students at Harvard, we organized an ambitious university-wide celebration of the Universal Declaration, with articles from the Declaration projected onto many different University buildings, and a huge event at the Kennedy School with 30 people on stage, one for each UDHR article, reading aloud the article that particularly concerned them. It was a demonstration of the relevance of human rights principles across the university, from the Engineering School to the theatre, from the Physics and the Middle Eastern Studies departments to the Graduate School of Design – the real possibility of “One Harvard” focused on a mission of non-discrimination and equity principles. Our celebrations involved scholars and students who had not previously considered human rights as central to their concerns, but who were persuaded to reconsider. Again persuading colleagues and students that human rights are central to our lives as citizens, consumers, workers, is a work in progress, but – at Harvard at least – I feel we have made important strides.

As I look forward this year, on December 10th, 2023, I will find it hard to muster the enthusiasm and optimism I seem to have had on previous anniversaries. I will be preoccupied by the devastating disregard of human rights and international law norms that we are witnessing, by the blatant violation of the mantra of “Never Again” as babies are killed and civilian populations bombarded. I will be preoccupied by the terrifying rise in state-supported xenophobia and racism that denies minorities equal access to citizenship, health care, child protection or rewarding employment, that increasingly forces people entitled to seek asylum and safe passage into life-threatening journeys. I will be preoccupied by evidence of our progressive destruction of the planet and ever-growing disparities in access to quality education and shelter, that mirror historical structures of exclusion and exploitation.

But I will also try to take comfort from the dynamism and brilliance of many of my students, whether their primary discipline is anthropology, divinity, law, public health or computer science, to hone their skills as social justice researchers or advocates. This December 10th will see many of my students more engaged than on the 50th or 60th anniversaries in political activism and rights-related research, whether their focus is climate change or structural racism, homophobia, the challenges posed by AI to children, the persistent inequities in access to health care or the enduring legacies of settler colonialism. As I grapple with the resurgence of a brutal arms race and the proliferation of authoritarian hate and fake speech, I will also celebrate students working to rescue migrants at sea, to develop maternal and child health programs in conflict areas, to draft policies that enhance the voice of indigenous and native peoples battling eviction from or appropriation of their ancestral lands, and to generate justice and healing for survivors of gender and sexual orientation-based violence. I will resolve to use the privilege of teaching in a diverse and inclusive university to inspire the next generation of human rights advocates, as I was inspired by the imperative to do better, and by teachers and mentors years ago. I will hope that the Universal Declaration’s powerful ambition for a just and free world will seem less distant in 25 years than it does now. How can we disagree that, as Article 1 of the Declaration proclaims: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

— Jacqueline Bhabha, JD, MSc
Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights, FXB Center Director of Research