Inspiring Revolution from a Long Secret Document: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

A group of people in front of a government building with posters advocating for immigrant rights.
A rally for minority rights in White Plains, NY. Photo: Robert Kesten

By Robert Kesten, President, AFTAP/PDHRE

For 73 years, a document approved by every nation as they joined the United Nations, has gone largely unnoticed by the people these states are sworn to represent. The Declaration’s 30 articles contain our inalienable rights, not given by government but holding government accountable to protect and defend them as their primary responsibility to us, the citizens of the earth.

Like the United Nations itself, the Declaration was a response to the horrors of World War II and the ravages of the Holocaust. Its articles provide a foundation, framework, and language so all people living in diverse and complex societies could live together in a civil world.  A novel idea today, a remote possibility coming out of a world war.

The only way the Declaration has power is if every woman, man, youth, and child claim them as their own. What we do not know, we do not have. The less we know, the more government usurps these inalienable human rights, offering us in return a false sense of security.

When we make these human rights our own we accept the responsibilities that come with them. That includes holding elected representatives to account. It means being engaged in the political process, it means securing and fighting for democracy…as without democracy our human rights are in jeopardy along with all we believe in and value.

Around the world we have seen citizens surrender their democracies for false security. In place of democracy they pay homage to dictators, strongmen, and potentates.  Their inalienable rights are eroded, their ability to engage in their government is limited, their right to vote marginalized.  One nation after another has met this fate. On January 6th, even the United States, the world’s oldest democracy, came face to face with that possibility…one that is still very much a factor in our political life.

If you care about sustainability, the environment, women’s rights, LGBTQI+ rights, housing, education, healthcare, and human dignity, there has never been a more important time than today to focus on the big picture, to claim your human rights and hold government fully accountable as you focus your energies on preserving and strengthening the levers of democracy.

Should those gain power who are passing legislation limiting access to the polls, denying women’s rights, looking to force LGBTQI citizens back in closets, and pushing for the destruction of the planet, the issues you hold most dear will be burned with the books they are purging from school libraries. Without a strong democracy our future on this planet will resemble the large hourglass the Wicked Witch of the West turned as she told Dorothy she had but a short time left to live.

The ticking of the environmental time bomb is short, but the timer on democracy has already sounded its alarm.  In 1961, thirteen years after the vote approving of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a newly elected president of the United States beseeched us not to ask what our country could do for us, but what we could do for our country.  The time to head that call is now, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is our guide and the Declaration of Independence our call for a rebirth of freedom from tyrants and would be dictators.

Much of the world finds itself in revolutionary times. People are fleeing climate change, economic distress, political insecurity, and instability plagues us as new variants of a deadly virus moves silently amongst us. We have the technology to secure and preserve our inalienable rights and our democracy which in turn ensures a sustainable future where we can fight for the issues most important to us. For the short term, our silos must come down, we must find ourselves united in following a single star. The immediacy of our struggle could not be clearer. Read and claim the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as your own, organize those in your community to become a Human Rights City, and reach out to broaden this movement so, in time, we can build the world we have all long dreamed of, one where all are born free and equal and every corner of the map is its own shining city on the hill.

Robert Kesten
Shulamith Institute for Human Rights

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