The United Nations General Assembly formally accepted and proclaimed the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and because this guiding document arose from the recent global horrors of World War II, its principles were understood on a visceral and personal level by those who drafted, accepted, and pledged to uphold each of its 30 articles.
70 years have passed since that time, and while some of these core principles have been internalized by the global community, the basic ideas behind the document—that all people have the right to claim basic dignity, freedom, justice and peace—remain the subject of debate and division. Why is this happening? In other words, after the tragic lessons of global war, why do fundamental human goals like equality, dignity and equal access to justice remain elusive? Why do the few and powerful still fight so energetically to deny basic rights to the many, and more important, why do they frequently win?
The defense of liberal democracy lies at the heart of a healthy and functioning social order in which basic human rights are accessible and uncontested. But in 2018, the foundations of democracy are under threat, and majoritarian leaders are still actively working to consolidate their power and pave the way for ongoing human exploitation. Why do human rights movements still struggle to gain a foothold?
Some suggest that universal human rights should be founded on economic, rather than political grounds. According to this argument, voting rights and legislative influence provide only one piece of the puzzle, and as long as economic stability for the poor remains a moral obligation of the rich, economic inequality will thrive and political inequality will follow. Some suggest that a narrowing of goals can undermine the successful expansion of human rights around the globe—for example, a narrow activist focus on specific issues like torture or human trafficking can cast a shadow over institutions that promote economic unfairness, and can therefore become short sighted or self-defeating.
Some suggest that misdirected efforts pose an obstacle to progress—for example, a focus on the courts as an instrument of human rights activism, as opposed to legislative or social efforts. Some suggest that free markets can open the door to self-sustaining human rights, while others see an unregulated marketplace as a tool that benefits only existing corporations and institutions. While we examine the puzzle and try to determine why basic human freedom, safety and dignity lie at the end of an uphill road, hard-won democratic norms are under growing assault through traditional methods that have not changed in over half a century, including the vilification of immigrants and suppression of the free press.
Here at Just Atonement, we rely on the legal system and the application of existing laws to protect the weak from the strong and promote the social, economic, and legal equality that provide fertile soil for healthy democratic institutions. But we also partner with social and academic organizations that can help us answer core questions and guide us on the path to a better world. If you’d like to join this conversation and help us identify connections that can advance the cause of global justice and human rights, please contact us and share your story.