The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. To me, it is a sacred text. Article 1 is as beautiful, as affecting, as inspiring as anything in the deepest spiritual teachings of this world:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
This year, we have the opportunity to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of this uniquely generative event in the history of human civilization.
Much of my work has turned on issues of cultural policy: how should societies treat the diversity of cultures? How should we decide what histories, artifacts and creations to preserve and promote through our museums and other public cultural institutions? How should we regulate powerful cultural media, such as television? How should we educate young people about their own heritage and cultures different from their own? I could fill pages with the relevant questions, but all of them are elaborated from one root text, one tiny seed of cultural democracy, Article 27, Section 1:
Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
As former UNESCO Director-General Rene Maheu said in 1970 (the gendered language is annoying, but that’s how people used to write):
It is not certain that the full significance of this text, proclaiming a new human right, the right to culture, was entirely appreciated at the time. If everyone, as an essential part of his dignity as a man, has the right to share in the cultural heritage and cultural activities of the community—or rather of the different communities to which men belong (and that of course includes the ultimate community—mankind)—it follows that the authorities responsible for these communities have a duty, so far as their resources permit, to provide him with the means for such participation. … Everyone, accordingly, has the right to culture, as he has the right to education and the right to work. … This is the basis and first purpose of cultural policy.
That is the remarkable thing about human rights: each declaration is a faint beam of light. But when refracted through the prism of humanity with our many gifts, our remarkable creativity and complexity, even a small beam can expand to flood the world with illumination.
It is sobering to read through this remarkable document and see that in 60 years, we have come very far in recognizing human rights, and still, we have so very far to go. It is a shame and a disgrace to this country and the other so-called civilized nations of the world that Article 5 remains an aspiration, not an accomplished fact:
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
This holy document is the common thread that binds people of goodwill everywhere. It was been translated into more than 336 languages. The cultural landscape it portrays is one in which each individual—each family and each community—is to be treated as equal, as an equally worthy embodiment of human life, to be cherished and emancipated from all forms of oppression.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has listed more than 50 ideas for commemorating the Declaration this year.
Here’s another one you can do right now: The Elders, a group of sages including Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Mary Robinson, Aung San Suu Kyi and other stellar advocates of peace and justice, has begun a campaign asking individuals around the world to sign the Declaration, pledging to uphold its goals, speaking out to protect freedom. (You can also download a nicely done version of the Declaration there.)
I have signed it, and so have more than 19,000 others. If you have two minutes, so can you.