Though the past 65 years have brought clear progress, a close-up look
at the status of human rights today isn’t as encouraging. But change
takes time. From this view, 2013 brought some notable advances.
By William F. Schulz
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — When the United Nations adopted the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights 65 years ago, the most genocidal war in
modern history had ended only three years earlier. Racial segregation
was still the law in much of the United States, the Gulag prison
system was active in the Soviet Union, and apartheid reigned in South
Africa. By those standards human rights progress since has been huge.
But if we zero in on human rights today, the picture isn’t as
encouraging. The Arab Spring has turned to winter. Russia is a
democracy in name only. The Syrian civil war is taking an enormous
toll, especially on children. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that
there are 43.7 million refugees or internally displaced people around
the world due to conflict and violence. And the US Senate appears
reluctant to ratify even the noncontroversial Convention on the Rights
of Persons with Disabilities.
But whoever said that the achievement of respect for human rights
would proceed quickly or in a linear fashion? Indeed, the advancement
of human rights is largely dependent on changes in norms. For better
or worse, those norms change gradually, sometimes advancing, sometimes
The good news is, however, that they do change and usually in a
progressive direction. Seen from this perspective, 2013 brought some
In Congo, the UN peacekeeping force, criticized for 14 years of
passivity, launched its Forward Intervention Brigade. Fighting
alongside government troops, it forced the M23 militia, responsible
for numerous rapes and killings, to announce a cessation of
The French acted similarly when they beat back an Al Qaeda-affiliated
militia in Mali. Such actions would have been far less likely before
the UN adopted its 2005 resolution on the Responsibility to Protect,
affirming the international community’s obligation to protect
civilians at risk from war crimes, thereby shifting the norm regarding
when active military intervention is appropriate.
Or consider Myanmar’s decision to release hundreds of political
prisoners. Though the country, also known as Burma, is still battling
with Karen rebels and has done far too little to protect the Rohingya
Muslims from attack by Buddhist extremists, Burmese President Thein
Sein knows that his campaign for international acceptance will be
unsuccessful if his country continues to imprison peaceful political
Would a world indifferent to human rights have taken a young Pakistani
girl named Malala Yousafzai to its heart when Taliban gunmen shot her
as payback for her advocacy of women’s education? Malala became the
first girl nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In her neighboring
India, public outrage over the fatal gang rape of a woman in Delhi
resulted in improved, if still highly flawed, new laws against rape.
And in the U.S. the number of states allowing same-sex marriage
doubled to 16, and Maryland became the 18th state to abolish the death
penalty. The public demonstrations in Ukraine now reflect not only the
attraction of European Union-style freedoms but a resurgence of the
“people power” that flourished a decade ago in that country.
Perhaps most remarkable is China’s announcement that it will abolish
“reeducation through labor camps,” into which tens of thousands of
Chinese citizens have been thrown without trial, often for the
pettiest alleged offenses. It is too early to tell whether this is a
harbinger of larger changes in China. But abolition would never have
occurred absent a growing international insistence that to be a “great
power” means to allow those accused of crimes a chance to defend
themselves, as the U.S. has learned at Guantánamo Bay.
Impatience is an understandable reaction to the global evolution of
human rights. To learn of suffering and not to want it abated as soon
as possible is the sign of a callous heart. But just as damaging is to
adopt a cynical attitude toward human rights bred by a focus solely on
its short-term setbacks.
Those who wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 65 years ago
knew that they would not live to see the world transformed to their
full liking, but they had faith that it would gravitate in the
direction they envisioned. It is impossible to compare the world of
1948 to today and not be convinced that indeed it has.
In spite of setbacks, 2013 shows that the march toward justice may
take a long, rugged, and sometimes winding road, but it does move
forward. The past year shed light on clear pitfalls along the way but
also offered clear way marks of progress.
William F. Schulz, president of the Unitarian Universalist Service
Committee, is the former executive director of Amnesty International