Human Rights Day is observed every year on December 10th—the day on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year, it comes at a time of great uncertainty in the world. Besieged by an unprecedented global health crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic, communities and societies worldwide are experiencing severe economic and social impacts. With the rise of authoritarian regimes, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and wealth inequality, human rights are under attack, prompting important questions about what the human rights movement means, what it has accomplished, and what it must set its sights on now. In honor of Human Rights Day, 10 Carr Center faculty and fellows have penned short essays reflecting on the future of human rights and how far they still have to go.
Faculty Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Administration
As we approach Human Rights Day 2020, we bring to a close a year that weighs heavily on many of us. The pandemic has already taken about 1.5 million lives globally, about a quarter of them in the United States. And here, an eerie parallel keeps coming back to me, namely, that “about a quarter” is also the U.S. share in the global prison population. That it’s a quarter both times, in a way, is a peculiar coincidence. Still, both matters make painfully clear that the astounding amount of wealth and knowledge that the US possesses is not deployed to look after its own people. More specifically, it is not used to look after its most vulnerable.
The protests against police violence following the death of George Floyd and others have marshaled an enormous amount of support for much-needed change, not only in policing but also in the way the country views and handles the history and current reality of its race relations. But it is also fair to interpret the results of the presidential election as showing that a rather large share of Americans is unwilling to engage with these matters. And then, day by day, we find ourselves in an increasingly surreal political environment. State after state certifies the election results, those under Democratic leadership as much as those under Republican leadership. State by state, election law provides for careful oversight in the processing of election results, and the courts provide remedies for anybody who suspects wrongdoing. The outgoing president refuses to accept a sound defeat in which more than 7 million more voters opted against him than for him. He does so by spreading blatant lies that every single time his people brought them to a court were found deprived of evidence. And yet he finds sufficiently many people who are willing to bend their souls to echo his falsehoods, seemingly for no other reason than to hang on to power or influence. Sufficiently many to throw a shadow of illegitimacy over the incoming presidency in the minds of many. "There must be something to this,” many will think.
The president and his enablers not only accuse opponents of doing precisely what they (president and enablers) are doing themselves; they do so with an aura of ostensibly genuine and apparently contagious moral indignation, even outrage, at being so treated, and they add layers of sophistication to their charges, to the effect, that it is really those opponents who accuse them (president and enablers) of doing precisely what they (opponents) are actually doing. In a time of limited attention spans, we are thereby operating in an environment where political discourse just drowns in noise. Genuine debate rarely happens: questions are ignored, personal attacks dominate. The politics of discreditation is all around us. What does this all have to do with human rights? Everything. More than 70 years after the passing of the Universal Declaration the year 2020 teaches us that even in wealthy countries with deep capacities in all domains, the basic protection of economic and political agency is not secure. The struggle to make them so continues.