Protecting rights requires leadership
Sixty years ago this month, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first international proclamation of the inherent dignity and equal rights of all people. Yet the declaration's enlightened vision of individual freedom, social protection, economic opportunity and duty to community is still unfulfilled.
Sixty years ago this month, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first international proclamation of the inherent dignity and equal rights of all people. To this day, the declaration remains the single most-important reference point for discussion of values across national, ideological and cultural divides.
Yet the declaration's enlightened vision of individual freedom, social protection, economic opportunity and duty to community is still unfulfilled. Tragically, genocide is happening again, this time in Sudan. A heightened security agenda since September 2001 has included attempts to legitimize the use of "extraordinary rendition" (the movement between countries of prisoners and suspects without due process of law) and torture.
For women around the world, domestic violence and discrimination in employment are a daily reality. Minorities suffer stigma, discrimination and violence. The right to information is denied through censorship and media intimidation.
At least one billion very poor people, 20 percent of humanity, are daily denied basic rights to adequate food and clean water.
As we mark this anniversary, the question is how to protect the inherent dignity and equal rights of all people. A key part of the answer lies in more effective systems of accountability, so that rights are recognized and laws enforced. Yet this will not be enough.
The deepest challenges of discrimination, oppression, injustice, ignorance, exploitation and poverty cannot be addressed through the law or policy alone. If we are to make reforms sustainable and ensure that they truly protect human rights, we need effective institutions of government.
Poorly equipped or corrupt institutions are a primary obstacle to the protection and promotion of human rights. In recent years, billions of dollars have been invested by governments, businesses and private philanthropy in fighting poverty. Millions of people have benefited. Yet without greatly improved institutional capacity - for example, well-resourced and competent local and national health systems - further progress will be limited.
Similarly, billions of people are unable to access or protect their legal rights because judicial and law-enforcement systems are impoverished or lack integrity. Changing this will require massive investment in courts, police, prison systems, social ministries and parliaments, as well as in human-rights institutions and other monitoring bodies.
As world leaders race to address the global economic crisis, it may seem unrealistic to be calling for large and long-term investments of this kind. But, while stabilizing the international financial system is important, doing so won't solve wider challenges of governance.
Human rights cannot be realized in the absence of effective institutions. Where courts and police are corrupt, overburdened and inefficient, civil rights will be violated. Where social ministries are under-resourced, disempowered or lacking staff, rights to adequate health care, education and housing will remain unfulfilled.
The world's richest nation, the United States, struggles to implement much needed reforms - including its health and education systems. Think how difficult this challenge is for developing nations.
Over the last year, as members of The Elders - a group of leaders formed under Nelson Mandela's inspiration - we have been working to send a human-rights message to the world through the Every Human Has Rights Campaign. Thanks to this effort, tens of thousands of individuals - and millions more through schools, community groups, trade unions, and civil-society organizations - have come to identify again, or for the first time, with the goals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is reason for hope.
We have better tools to communicate and demand justice than any generation before us. We have global goals and shared destinies that connect us. What is needed now are leadership, resources, a sense of urgency, and commitment to the long-term efforts necessary to ensure that the rights enshrined in the declaration are not only recognized universally, but respected as well.