This tragic gap between ideal and practice makes a mockery of the lofty rhetoric from the U.S. and other governments proclaiming Dec. 10 "Human Rights Day." Perhaps that's why so little effort is spared to commemorate the occasion.
Nevertheless, I'm convinced that Mrs. Roosevelt got it right. With one voice, the world set a "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations." On Dec. 10, 1948, "atrocities" became "violations," a change that launched the modern struggle for universal human rights.
If not everyone in the 1948 General Assembly fully appreciated the revolutionary implications of their vote, the Soviet delegates clearly understood how a universal definition of human rights might be invoked to threaten state power. Right up to the final vote, the Soviets attempted to amend the document to give governments the right to restrict freedom of opinion and expression without violating the Universal Declaration. Fortunately, they failed.
Echoing the American First Amendment, the final document proclaims that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion" and "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression." The state does not grant these rights — and the state may not take them away. These rights are inalienable.
While it's undeniable that the world has failed to live up to the Universal Declaration, that doesn't mean that the standard is not worth having. Consider this: Today, the constitutions of more than 40 countries and the European Union explicitly invoke the Universal Declaration when defining the basic rights guaranteed to their citizens.
The declaration has also served as the basis for U.N. covenants on civil and economic rights, such as the treaties protecting the rights of the child and prohibiting discrimination against women (most of which the U.S. has yet to ratify).
Moreover, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and many other groups, founded on the principles affirmed in the declaration, have successfully used world opinion and moral persuasion to advance the cause of human rights.
The passage of the Universal Declaration in 1948 was a momentous decision, arguably the most important decision for human rights since the passage of the American Bill of Rights in 1791.
"A bill of rights," wrote Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, "is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth â?¦ and what no just government should refuse."
It took a Holocaust for the world to agree to an international bill of rights. What will it take for the world to live up to it?
Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: email@example.com.