Sunday marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but many of those most loudly celebrating are doing the most harm to its legacy.  

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains the foundation on which the United Nations’ human rights framework is built. The contribution of the declaration to human rights was and remains immense. 

After deliberations focused on distilling universal human rights and values common to all humanity, the drafters, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, proposed 30 articles expressing universal rights, including the freedoms of expression, religion, movement, and assembly.

It also affirmed the right to life, the right to own property, the prohibition of slavery, and the concepts of dignity, equality, and due process. 

But around the globe, those rights are increasingly under assault.  

No doubt governments around the world will issue statements recognizing the anniversary and affirming their commitment to human rights. 

But governments flout rights with little consequence. Democracy has been overthrown with alarming frequency in the Sahel region of Africa and has been in slow retreat globally for years, according to Freedom House.

Religious persecution and violence is increasingly common. Authoritarian governments, led by Beijing, seek to control speech and police their populations via increasingly omnipresent surveillance. In China, perhaps 1 million Uyghur Muslims are imprisoned and subject to forced labor. In fact, the U.S. has determined that Beijing is committing genocide in Xinxiang. 

The U.N. conducts human rights kabuki theater, but no one seriously expects it to act in defense of human rights. The premier human rights body at the U.N., the Human Rights Council, focuses much of its time on condemning Israel, but has no time to condemn China, Cuba, or the many other human rights violators.  

Likewise, governments dishonestly spin tales of their fidelity to human rights in the Human Rights Council during the universal periodic reviews. Other governments disingenuously nod along with those falsehoods and assert that the process is helpful.  

Meanwhile, human rights advocates too often ignore violations of basic human rights and freedoms and instead seek to expand the number of rights and distort their interpretation in ways never envisioned by those who drafted the Universal Declaration. 

As noted by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the original 30 rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have proliferated into more than 1,300 rights provisions in 64 agreements. 

Those new rights encompass a variety of matters, including rights to a healthy environment, peace, development, and sexual orientation and gender identity, among many other issues.  

What’s so wrong with expanding the scope of human rights? Unfortunately, more rights do not translate into more justice, more freedom, or more protection for individuals.

But the proliferation of rights and the desire to advance all of them without preference dilutes the attention and resources that can be applied to strengthening any one of them. 

The sad reality is that the multilateral system has too frequently fallen short of fulfilling the promise in the U.N. Charter to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, equality, and the dignity and worth of the human person.  

The evolution of the human rights discourse over the past few decades has made this challenge harder, not easier.

Pursuing new, increasingly esoteric rights claims, while ignoring the fact that much of the world’s population has yet to enjoy the rights laid out in the Universal Declaration, does a huge disservice to the billions of people who face jail or worse for speaking their opinions, protesting their government, or practicing their religion.   

That was a key takeaway from the First Principles on Human Rights Series that The Heritage Foundation published in 2020. In that series, experts assessed in detail threats to basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, and made recommendations for policymakers. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)

For instance, professor Tom Finegan, a lecturer in theology and religious studies at Mary Immaculate College in Ireland, urged states to reject faulty interpretations of treaties, warning that if states are passive toward, or acquiescent to, faulty pronouncements by treaty-monitoring bodies, those pronouncements could attain the status of customary human rights law.  

In another essay, Notre Dame law professor Paolo Carozza, who served on the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, urges policymakers to be cautious in the use of the concept of dignity in the law in ways that generate new rights or aggressive new understandings of rights. He emphasizes that need for broad consensus when assessing rights claims.  

Lawyers Michael Farris and Paul Coleman caution that efforts to limit free speech in the name of combating “hate speech” (and the recent proposals to combat misinformation or disinformation) pose an existential threat to freedom of expression.  

On the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the best tribute would be to return the focus to human rights that have universal consensus. Unless those fundamental rights and freedoms are secure, other human aspirations will be forever vulnerable.

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