What Does International Human Rights Day Commemorate?

Human Rights Day is Thursday, Dec. 10. (Getty Images)

Thursday, Dec. 10 commemorates the 72nd anniversary of Human Rights Day. It marks when in 1948 Eleanor Roosevelt ushered in the modern human rights era by presenting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the United Nations for approval.  The acceptance of that document by the nations of the U.N. is what we commemorate today.

Keith David Watenpaugh, the author, is a professor and director of Human Rights Studies, UC Davis

All UC Davis Human Rights Studies students at some point in their undergraduate careers watch "San Francisco, 1945," a short film produced by the U.S. Information Service to introduce the United Nations to the American public. With creative cinematography, and a score by multiple-Grammy-winning composer Morton Gould, it is a testament to a moment when Hollywood’s best and brightest had put their skills to work on behalf of building support for the fledgling organization.  The film follows the delegates who had gathered from San Francisco in late-Spring through the early-Summer of 1945 to hammer out the final details of the U.N. Charter. World War II was still being fought, yet its end had come into sight.

Keith Watenpaugh

I like to show it to my students for many reasons: even in black and white San Francisco is beautiful — a cable-car climbs Hyde Street, a “Liberty Ship” is built in Sausalito, and a destroyer passes beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, which had been completed only eight years earlier. 

Mostly I use it to emphasize how determined people and leaders were not to make the same mistakes that had brought conflict and genocide to the world twice over 30 years. They were there in San Francisco to make a world without war.

As the narrator explains, the delegates carried with them the “hopes of the living and the dead.”

Human rights weren’t high on the agenda at San Francisco when the meeting began. With the surrender of Nazi Germany while it was taking place, information about the Holocaust began to emerge that would alter the U.N.’s human rights mandate.  Within three years, Eleanor Roosevelt ushered in the modern human rights era when, on December 10, 1948, she presented the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or UDHR to the U.N. for approval.  The acceptance of that document by the nations of the UN is what we commemorate today.

The film tells us that the war and the tremendous social and personal sacrifice of so many demanded that the delegates move humanity forward with the new organization and the principles it would embrace. The economy, arts, labor, science, military and diplomacy are shown being put to work making a new world for all, and certainly not returning it to normal.

Returning to normal in 1945 would have been as much an abandonment of the “hopes of the living and dead” as it would be today in the wake of the pandemic. Though the end is in sight, if our goal after its eradication is to merely to “return to normal” then we will have failed. We must use this moment to address seriously and collectively the human rights problems, especially those in the fields of economic, social and cultural rights, that killed so many and brought such misery to more.

In my own thoughts these days, I return often to Article 27 of the UDHR:

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

As the multiple COVID-19 vaccines start to be distributed, that process will not be equal across communities and continents.

I worry that most of the world won’t be able to “share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

I don’t mean here that there is something wrong with prioritizing healthcare workers or the elderly. They should be prioritized because they are vulnerable and we depend on them. According to a recent Human Rights Watch Report, the reality is that the world’s wealthiest states, about 13 percent of global population, have made deals to buy up over 50% of the global vaccine production for the foreseeable future, leaving the remainder for the other 87 percent — 6.7 billion people. 

Health and the intellectual tools to prevent disease are basic human rights. Unequal access on the basis of wealth and “vaccine nationalism” are rights violations. 

UC Davis helped develop the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine.  Something we should be very proud of. Our university’s participation also means that we are responsible to make sure that getting a vaccine is a universal, equitable and human-rights informed process – not just in the United States, but around the world too.  A good starting point would be for our university to endorse the WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool Solidarity Statement, which would commit us to sharing knowledge and intellectual property to foster access to vaccines and other treatments. 

The “hopes of the living and the dead,” at San Francisco 75 years ago have never been fully realized.  Those disappointments should not enjoin inaction or cynicism, but rather the reverse and merely point to where we must redouble our efforts.

Over the last few months, we’ve seen terrible things. We’ve seen so many acting without regard to the rights of others, especially their right to life, as well as the social and economic welfare of so many communities.  We’ve seen the harrowing, but we’ve also seen acts of tremendous solidarity, sacrifice, and creativity.  While all those memories are with us, we must resolve to never return to normal.

The original article by Watenpaugh is posted here.

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