Campus & Community

Hailing an unfulfilled promise

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Harvard marks 60th anniversary of human rights declaration

Harvard marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Wednesday (Dec. 10), highlighting both the document’s power and its unfulfilled promise through theater, song, and ideas.

As images of the declaration’s articles were displayed in light onto University buildings in an outdoor tribute, hundreds gathered inside at the Harvard Kennedy School’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum for an event featuring dozens from the Harvard community and beyond, spanning fields from acting to economics, from music to medicine.

“We’re here to celebrate a truly remarkable document … and all its ramifications and all it means,” said Harvard Kennedy School Dean David Ellwood, who introduced the event. “There have been periods of remarkable progress and real setbacks.”

Jacqueline Bhabha, executive director of the University Committee on Human Rights Studies, which sponsored the event along with more than a dozen partnering organizations, said that it is part of the mission of places like Harvard to inspire students and channel their idealism toward worthy goals, something she hoped Wednesday’s event would help accomplish.

The night opened and closed with the arts. It kicked off with a dramatic reading of the declaration’s 30 articles, which was directed by Diane Paulus, artistic director of the A.R.T., and created and organized by the A.R.T. and Physicians for Human Rights. The reading was done by 30 different people whose lives have been touched by a particular article’s content. Among them were Bol Riiny, a former Sudanese “Lost Boy”; Svang Tor, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide; and Hassan Bility, a Liberian journalist and former prisoner of conscience. Readers also included several members of the Harvard community, including Loeb University Professor Laurence Tribe, Evron and Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of International Affairs John Ruggie, and Learned Hand Visiting Professor of Law Judge Richard Goldstone, who was the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The evening ended with a performance by Malian singer Oumou Sangare, also known as “The Songbird of Wassoulou.”

In between was a discussion of the current state of human rights by economist Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize laureate and the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor, and Paul Farmer, the Maude and Lillian Presley Professor of Medical Anthropology and a founder of the nonprofit Partners In Health. The panel event, moderated by Harvard President Drew Faust, highlighted the Universal Declaration’s groundbreaking enumeration of economic and social rights — the right to work, to education, to medical care, and to food, clothing, and housing.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted 60 years ago, on Dec. 10, 1948, in the wake of the human rights horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. Its drafting was led by former U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who served as a delegate to the United Nations from 1945 to 1952.

Faust introduced the panel, saying that the declaration’s 26th article — on education — is particularly meaningful to her. The article says everyone has a right to free elementary education and that higher education should be accessible to all according to merit, something that Harvard has been working to make happen. Though there has been progress in making the declaration’s rights real to people around the globe, violations are still a regular and unremarkable occurrence, Faust said.

“Every day, every single one of these articles is violated somewhere,” she said. “They [the articles] ask us to uplift ourselves and keep, as the declaration says, ‘this declaration constantly in mind.’”

Sen provided historical context for the Universal Declaration, saying that its passage provided a hopeful ending to a dark year that had seen the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the beginnings of the Cold War with the Berlin airlift. Sen said the declaration made important contributions to the world of ideas by asserting that human rights are fundamental and apply to people around the world independent of laws protecting those rights. This assertion drew ridicule at the time, he said, because some claimed that rights without protecting laws are meaningless. In its incorporation of social and economic rights, the declaration went far beyond earlier pioneering documents such as the American Declaration of Independence, Sen said, but that again made it the target of criticism, this time for being unrealistic.

Groundbreaking as it was, the decades since its passage have seen repeated violations of those rights.

“Its work is not yet done,” Sen said.

In his talk, Farmer highlighted an earlier statement of economic rights, those enumerated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1944 State of the Union speech. Farmer said an important question today is what is the government’s vision to create jobs to alleviate suffering from the economic downturn. He drew on his experience as a physician through Partners In Health to highlight successes and continued challenges facing the implementation of economic rights.

Children around the world are starving, highlighting a large gap between today’s reality and any declaration of a right to food. Farmers in Haiti and other poor nations are hurt by agricultural trade agreements among wealthy nations that some say are so exclusive they make it difficult for those farmers to feed their families.

Further, he said, we have “failed miserably” at providing the right to a decent home, and, in a world where injuries such as a simple broken leg can be lethal, have a long way to go before medical rights are assured.

Farmer said there is so much work to be done that the popular phrase “Think globally and act locally” doesn’t go far enough.

“We have to be thinking and acting globally and locally at the same time,” Farmer said.