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Taking stock: Human rights after the end of the Cold War

To mark the date on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, World Human Rights Day is celebrated each year on 10 December. The first Human Rights Day celebration was held in 1950 following a General Assembly resolution that “[i]nvites all States and interested organizations” to recognize the historical importance of the UDHR as a “distinct forward step in the march of human progress.”

No specific guidelines are given for how this distinct forward step is to be honored; as such, Human Rights Day has evolved over the decades through a wide range of practices and degrees of awareness. More recently, it has become customary for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to designate a particular theme for Human Rights Day. For example, the theme for Human Rights Day 2004 was “Human Rights Education”; the theme for Human Rights Day 2006 was “Fighting Poverty: A Matter of Obligation, Not Charity”; and in 2011, the theme was “Celebrate Human Rights!” (the vigorous exclamation point recognizes the role of human rights in revolutions and street protests from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street).

This year, the theme is more sober, measured, and perhaps even a bit bureaucratic: “20 Years: Working For Your Rights.” As a guide to the day’s events, the OHCHR provides a set of promotional videos and statements by international figures and a timeline of important milestones in the twenty years since the World Conference of Human Rights in Vienna, which led to Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and the establishment of the OHCHR itself.

20 Years of Human Rights – The Road Ahead by United Nations Human Rights

Some of these milestones are specific, demonstrable, and relatively uncontroversial, such as the fact that economic, social, and cultural rights are now considered part of the mainstream corpus of international human rights law and the establishment (in 2002) of the International Criminal Court as the first permanent international court committed to prosecuting those who commit gross violations of human rights. Others are no doubt true, but represent sweeping assertions that fairly beg for closer scrutiny, such as the fact that “[h]uman rights have become central to the global conversation regarding peace, security and development.” And others are so tenuous and prospective as to hardly qualify as a milestone worth of the name, such as the fact that a “growing consensus is emerging that business enterprises have human rights responsibilities.”

Nevertheless, there is no question but that the twenty-five years since the end of the Cold War have been a historical watershed for the broader project of human rights advocacy and enforcement that was forged from the tragedy of the Second World War and its unprecedented levels of military violence, state-sponsored murder, and nationalist imperialism. Despite the fact that a debate is now raging between those who take a long view of the development of the idea of human rights over the decades and even centuries, and those who argue that the project of human rights as we now know it really began as late as the 1970s, there can be little doubt that the end of the Cold War unleashed a flood of both pent-up and new momentum for human rights that continues to wash over a world captivated by the twined promises of human dignity and radical equality.

Beyond the important developments in international human rights law, what was most notable in the transitional years after the end of the Cold War was the emergence of transnational human rights networks and their growing power, particularly in developing countries and those in processes of democratization after periods of dictatorship, military rule, or (as in the case of South Africa) state-sanctioned racism. The key shift that made this possible was the widespread transformation of “development” – understood broadly – from its origins in the technocratic Green Revolution of the 1960s to the more complicated political-moral framework of human rights. It was no longer adequate to facilitate development simply by making the fruits of modern science available to those in most need. Instead, the provisioning of basic human needs now took on a moral imperative. People everywhere had a human right to live as much free from want as from oppression. In this way, the “curious grapevine” that would allow the idea of human rights to “seep in even when governments are not so anxious for it” finally took shape, decades after Eleanor Roosevelt envisioned it.

But if the post-Cold War was a giddy time of possibility for the promotion of human rights, it is worth considering the present status of human rights as the post-Cold War gives way to a world marked by new lines of geopolitical division, new hierarchies of power and influence, and the realization that chronic patterns of socioeconomic inequality continue to set limits on structural change in places where it is most needed. The universal claims of human rights must jostle with other ideologies of political and moral transformation drawn from religion, nationalist politics, culture, doctrines of collective victimhood, and even remnants of Marxist class struggle. And hovering over all is the specter of neoliberal economics and the pervasive logic of costs and benefits, which might or might not encourage the promotion of human rights (with sincere apologies to Kant).

So as the world celebrates Human Rights Day this 10 December, it is right and proper to acknowledge the extraordinary achievements of the last twenty-five years. We now live in an age of human rights. At the same time, this age of human rights is still an uncertain one, with crises over climate change, population growth, and resource scarcity (among others) looming in the near distance. Let us hope a collective appreciation for universal human dignity will guide our attempts to confront them.

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