Seventy years ago today, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Through our work at the Center for Justice and Accountability, we can attest that advances in international human rights law rank among the most significant accomplishments in foreign policy of the post-WWII era. This is due in no small part to the Declaration which has inspired close to a hundred international treaties and declarations, including the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In the twenty years since we were first established, CJA has helped secure justice for survivors and families of victims of the Khmer Rouge, the Pinochet regime, the Siad Barre regime in Somalia, and generals responsible for the most emblematic crimes of the Salvadoran civil war. Today, we are litigating the first war crimes case against the Syrian regime on behalf of the family of Marie Colvin, and assisting Liberians in their quest for a war crimes tribunal. Much of our work is possible because of the Declaration.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that one of the most important achievements in human rights is the “global consensus that serious violations of human rights must not go unpunished. Victims have the right to claim justice, including within processes to restore the rule of law following conflicts.” Indeed, the principle derived from the Nuremberg Tribunals is that some crimes are so egregious that the perpetrators must be held to account wherever they are found.
In the aftermath of the genocides of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, international law experienced a renaissance with the formation of tribunals to hold accountable perpetrators of incomprehensible inhumanity. The global community also established the International Criminal Court. While some may differ in opinion regarding the courts’ effectiveness, each represents continued efforts to make accountability stick, and to serve notice that no one is above the law.
If you type “is human rights dead?” into your search engine, a plethora of doomsaying articles appear. When you read about the murder of Kamal Khashoggi, John Bolton’s attacks on the International Criminal Court, the failure of states to arrest Omar Al-Bashir on an outstanding warrant for crimes against humanity, the Philippine’s Duterete’s extrajudicial killing of narco-traffickers, and so on, you might succumb to bitter defeatism. Yet as Senator John McCain explained in his autobiography, “the liberal world order…has brought more stability, prosperity and freedom to humankind than has ever existed in history.”
The battle today is both about strengthening the legal framework of human rights and ensuring that those rights are enforced. The global community must invest in development to reduce the precursors to war and autocracy; in peacekeeping, so that instability does not descend into genocide; and in rule of law so that the most marginalized communities have a voice and a champion in courts that are fair and impartial. Accountability is a necessary ingredient for justice and in building confidence in democratic institutions.
On this 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we should redouble our commitment to human rights, and ensure that this singular declaration continues to become, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “the international Magna Carta for all humankind.” Or as President George H.W. Bush once said, “International exchanges are not a great tide to sweep away all differences, but they will slowly wear away at the obstacles to peace as surely as water wears away a hard stone.”
C. Dixon Osburn