| On Dec. 10, 1948, the United Nations ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was a unique moment in time because the horrors of World War II were still fresh, but the polarization of the Cold War was not yet an impediment to global standards of this kind.
The driving force behind this declaration was Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of the recently deceased four-term president. She had long been a force for social progress in the United States, supporting workers, African Americans, women and others asserting their rights.
Less well known in the long process that led to the ratification of this declaration was Dr. Peng-chun Chang. Born in China, Dr. Chang received his undergraduate degree at Clarke University and doctorate at Columbia University. Although he was an expert in Chinese history, religion and philosophy, his American education and skills as a diplomat had resulted in a sometimes-contentious process ending with a unanimous vote for ratification in the U.N. General Assembly.
When you get a moment, read the short document that contains the Preamble and the thirty Articles that make up the Declaration: udhr.org/UDHR/default.htm. Echoes of the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights are there. So are the Magna Carta and the human rights declarations of France, India, South Africa and other countries.
Looking back on the past eight years, the Bush administration’s focus on the so-called “War on Terror” has increased state power and diminished individual liberties. Many of the thirty articles of the UDHR, especially those related to the right to a fair trial, freedom from arbitrary detention and freedom from arbitrary interference with privacy, have been undermined in ways that will take years to repair.
Instead of focusing on how far we are falling short of the standards described in the declaration, however, let’s give thanks to those who are working to enforce and build upon those standards, so that they can enhance the lives of all people.
Professor David Yamada of Suffolk University Law School in Boston is just one example of an Asian Pacific American who has lived up to the ideals of the UDHR and whose everyday efforts are improving the lives of people all over the world.