Full implementation of the UDHR isn’t a pipe dream, but it will require us to look beyond governments and international institutions.
Sixty-six years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who is responsible for upholding our most basic rights as humans? And are rights truly universal, or are they relative?
These questions are indelibly inked into the fabric of our economy, society, and political system. Following World War II and the creation of the United Nations, the UDHR represented “the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.” Championed by Eleanor Roosevelt, the widely accepted manifesto built upon the work of her husband, who famously declared that worldwide democracy should be founded upon four essential freedoms.
This primordial soup of rights-based ideology and dialogue resulted in the birth of the United Nations, and subsequently a handful of substantial treaties, frameworks, and guiding principles for our quest to define and maintain human rights globally.
However, after decades of debate, we have yet to answer the ultimate question: who is responsible for ensuring this productive discourse is transformed into tangible action? Earlier this year, political scientist Stephen Hopgood proclaimed that we have reached “the end of human rights.” Hopgood argued that despite successful recognition of all human beings’ moral equivalence (no minor feat), little has been done to meld regional differences in interpretation and practice. In other words, our attempts to answer the critical question of implementation — whether through international declarations like the UDHR, conventions like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or the creation of the UN Human Rights Council — have fallen short.
As we reflect on the anniversary of the UDHR, perhaps it is time for us to reconsider and expand our approach toward human rights. Leaders of the classical human rights movement envisioned a world in which governments agreed on and multilaterally implemented a set of principles. Since that time, we have witnessed immense globalization, putting civil and political rights at odds with economic and social ones while introducing a set of new players, including multinational enterprise.
Consequently, these conventions, declarations, and institutions are not fully equipped to enforce human rights at every level of society. It is necessary for us to be inclusive of all influencers, including the private sector, non-state actors, and other organizations and groups, in order to truly realize a society in which every person can fulfill his or her full potential — the dream of FDR’s progressivism and Eleanor’s Declaration of Human Rights.
Beyond Institutions: Global Enterprise and Human Rights
If governments and international institutions are unable to police human rights at every level, non-state actors must accept responsibility for integrating dignity into their practices. While vast ground remains to be covered, many companies are taking the lead on assessing their spheres of influence and ensuring their profits do not come at the expense of the choices and livelihoods of others.
One such company is Carlson, a corporation in the hotel and travel industries that works to stop human trafficking crimes. According to the International Labor Organization, 14.2 million people are victims of forced labor exploitation in economic activities worldwide. Despite 90 percent of countries enacting legislation criminalizing human trafficking under the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, it persists as tragic but preventable collateral damage of everyday economic and social activity.
Upon realizing that traffickers regularly use the hospitality industry to transport victims, Carlson used the valuable information provided by UNODC to be part of a solution. Now, they train their employees to recognize and report trafficking and have partnered with the State Department to educate travelers on the sexual exploitation of children.
For Ford Motor Company, being a more responsible business wasn’t as simple. Forced labor was buried deep in its supply chain, far from Detroit in Brazil’s charcoal mines, which provide an ingredient in steel production. When slave labor was exposed there in 2006, Ford was purchasing pig iron made from refined charcoal and using it in Cleveland to manufacture cars sold nationwide. The company took action to halt the use of pig iron and ensure its supply chain procured materials responsibly. Today, it collaborates with the State Department, the ILO, and the Brazilian National Pact to eradicate forced labor and improve transparency in manufacturing.
Like Ford’s model, supply chain innovation offers an opportunity for rising leaders to use the economic influence of private business to impact human rights. Both of these companies leveraged their own success to help solve a global problem. They confronted their spheres of influence and were willing to work with partners to develop solutions.
Similarly, Unilever, the maker of products including Dove soap and Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, partnered with Oxfam in 2013 on a supply chain analysis of its operations in Vietnam. The partners sought to better understand the implications of the UN Framework for Business and Human Rights and Global Compact Principles on global companies, and to improve conditions for thousands of workers along their manufacturing chain. Oxfam discovered that while Unilever was committed to high labor standards, policies ran only skin deep; Vietnamese managers were not equipped to implement them and lacked internal reporting mechanisms for violations.
Oxfam dissected Unilever’s business practices and concluded that while Unilever still had a long way to go, its positive corporate culture and long-term relationships with suppliers make it well positioned to confront the root causes of labor problems and authentically attempt to solve them.
Unilever, Ford, and Carlson did not sacrifice profits or shareholder obligations. Instead, they participated in a global conversation on human rights — one aggregated by the UN Global Compact — and underscored the importance of effective, cross-sector collaboration to reform their own practices.
A New Legacy for Our Generation
Each of these entities demonstrates the many spheres of influence at play in the pursuit of full human rights and dignity for all. What if every company took the same initiative to understand the social repercussions of its actions?
We need to rethink human rights by recognizing the power of our own choices upon others. Everyone is responsible for upholding human rights, whether as a part of your day job or as a member of a community. Seemingly benign actions — how much you pay your employees or which charities you support — are manifestations of your own unique interpretation of what dignity and rights mean.
The UN, NGOs, and other global institutions have provided a priceless platform for dialogue on human rights. Without the consensus-building mechanisms they provide, there would be no Universal Declaration of Human Rights, no “naming and shaming” of human rights abusers, and no coordinated effort to stop the world’s cruelest atrocities.
And yet, as we continue our efforts to avert the “end of human rights,” what will our own generation’s legacy of implementation be? As this generation rises to power in public and private leadership roles, those at decision-making tables across the spectrum will have an opportunity to think critically about their own actions. The foundation and forums, from the UDHR to the UN Global Compact, certainly exist. Now, it’s up to us to ensure a future in which human rights are celebrated not only at the institutional level, but at a more personal, human level as well.
Ariel Smilowitz is a senior at Cornell University majoring in Government and the Northeast Regional Policy Coordinator for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.
Monika Johnson is a member of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Alumni Advisory Committee.