The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on Dec. 10, 1948, by a vote of 48 to 3 to affirm fundamental beliefs about the dignity and equality of all humans throughout the world.
In 30 succinct statements, representatives acknowledged that certain rights are basic to all humans, regardless to nationality, geography, ethnicity, religious traditions, political ideologies, racial identity, sex or economic situation.
The 30 articles read well. However, I question whether people have ever been serious about them.
A “universal” belief that people have the right to life, liberty and property (Article 3) is of little value when humans are more subject to mass incarceration in the United States than any other industrialized society in the world.
What good was a “declaration” that people have the right to life and liberty to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Rayshard Arberry and the hundreds of other people who were shot or choked to death by law enforcement agents in the United States?
Article 5 declares that no one “shall be subjected to torture, or to cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment.” Nice words.
How can they be affirmed by the same nation that produced the travesty of Abu Ghraib?
Does anyone believe those words were considered when U.S. politicians decided to snatch infants and toddlers from their immigrant parents and deny children an opportunity to be protected and comforted by their parents?
Article 13 makes two statements that are especially discomforting.
The first statement is “Everyone has the right of freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.”
The second statement declares, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and the right to return to his country.”
That statement means a lot to Kurdish people who lived in Iraq and Syria and were forced to escape for their lives when their home communities and villages became part of war zones.
And it means a lot to Palestinians who were forced from their homes in 1948 and have been denied the right of return by the state of Israel. It means a lot to Palestinians whose ability to travel is currently controlled by walls.
Kurds, Palestinians and other vulnerable people know what the words say. However, there is little evidence that the United Nations’ member states, including the United States, have been committed do much more than issue an eloquently worded declaration.
As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.
The eloquent words of the UDHR at Article 14 about the right of everyone “to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries from persecution” do not mean much to asylum-seekers from South and Central America who trekked thousands of dangerous miles to seek safety from war, violence and persecution in the United States.
They have not found asylum, only deliberate governmental actions that force them to live as vagrants outside the United States.
Words about human rights do not produce respect for human rights unless the words are matched with action.
Words about respecting the right of return will mean something when Kurds, Palestinians and other displaced people are able to return to the places they call home.
Words about protecting people from torture will mean something when law enforcement officers are not given immunity for shooting tear gas and pepper spray at peaceful protesters against police brutality but are punished for doing so along with the people who ordered them to take those actions.
Until the eloquent words of the UDHR are matched with consistent actions, we should expect the world to act as if the nations do not intend to do anything more than hold an observance about lofty words.
The world deserves better than that. We do not need to merely say so. We should do what we say.
Until that happens, our lofty words about human rights amount to blatant hypocrisy.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for Human Rights Day (Dec. 10). The previous article in the series is:
No Room for Debate: Trans People Have Rights | Junia Joplin
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.