On July 21, after much international pressure, Norwegian national Marte Dalelv was pardoned of a 16-month conviction in Dubai for lying, illegal consumption of alcohol, and unlawful sex after a reported rape by his co-worker.
Two months later, on Sept. 10, the four men accused in the New Delhi gang-rape case of Dec. 2012 were sentenced to death by gallows. Exactly one week before, lawyers in Denver argued passionately against the death penalty for James Holmes, admitted Aurora shooting defendant, calling it cruel and unusual punishment.
These are just three of the most recent high-profile human rights cases from around the world. Contradictions and hard questions are commonplace when defining, legislating, and protecting human rights.
This December will mark the 65th anniversary of the United Nation’s unanimous adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR is a 30-article document outlining the universal and inalienable rights of all people—by far the biggest international attempt to standardize and codify human rights.
Since its adoption in the aftermath of WWII, the UDHR has had a major influence in the drafting of new constitutions, the construction of international law, and is a widely used tool for diplomatic pressure.
In the past 65 years, the 30 articles of the UDHR have evoked a full spectrum of reviews, from being hailed as “one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time” by Pope John Paul II, to being considered a Trojan horse of Western values imposed on societies who cannot afford its upkeep.
But as these cases illustrate, human rights abuses still abound.
Common criticisms of the UDHR include questioning its ability to enforce its articles, as well as asserting that it imposes Western values, such as paid vacations and the prioritization of individuals over communities.
Just as the UDHR frames the conversation about human rights, so do its perceived shortcomings reflect the conflicts and challenges faced by the international human rights arena.
This week, Edward Snowden was named on the short list for the Sakharov Prize given by the European Parliament for Freedom of Thought (a right enumerated in article 18 of the UDHR),. If won, Snowden will likely accept this award from exile or jail. Snowden is being persecuted by the United States, the same nation who played a big role in drafting the UDHR. (The UDHR includes Article 19, which protects the right to “receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”)
In fact, all of the nominees for the Sakharov Prize are in some way being persecuted by their home countries for igniting similar tensions. Of the nine individuals named on this year’s list of nominees, six are currently imprisoned by their states, and one is the survivor of an assassination attempt.
As these examples vividly illustrate, the UDHR has not eradicated human rights abuses. It has, however, created a framework in which the international community can critically discuss and think about human rights in the modern era.
By asserting that certain rights can transcend all of the world’s diverse cultures, religions, ideas, and traditions to be endowed upon all humans, we gain the framework with which to discuss the actual realities we see on the ground everyday.