Rights at the Crossroads

Editor's Introduction to issue 41

I am a child of an innocent time and place—the Great Plains in the golden years of the mid-20th century. I learned that the United States is the land of freedom and opportunity; the country that shows the way to rights for all.

But as I've learned our troubled history and seen our troubled present, I have come to question that story. I take no pleasure in my doubts. I am profoundly saddened when Manfred Nowak, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture says, “The United States has been the pioneer of human rights and is a country that has a high reputation in the world. Today, other governments are kind of saying, ‘But why are you criticizing us, we are not doing something different than what the United States is doing.'”

The ideals I learned as a child are good ones: equality, prosperity for all, government by the people, and commitment to the common good. Where are those ideals most clearly stated? The Bill of Rights is a good start. But the broadest statement is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It's been described as one of the most important documents in human history, been translated into hundreds of languages, and formed the basis for national constitutions, yet it is little known in the United States.

The UDHR was, in large part, a product of American idealism. President Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to head the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights. Many considered her high-minded but naive, and hardly up to the task. But her diplomatic skills and tough-minded moral leadership held the process together until the Declaration was completed.

Our issue includes an abridged version of the UDHR. We debated this presentation—some of our staff felt we should let the nobility of the document stand alone. But it's easy to glide through these idealistic statements and slip back into the belief that they pretty much describe this country. We decided it's worth taking a look at how the U.S. measures up.

That is our project in this issue: to step back from the comfortable notion that the United States has nothing to learn about human rights. There is no denying that the country has been a leader at times, but where do we stand now?

The timeline that runs through our theme section shows what historian Eric Foner points out: the story of human rights in the United States “is the story of cyclical progress and retreat, of debate and struggle.”

We are in a moment when even the rights we take for granted are in question. We were taught that people flee to this country to enjoy the full gifts of human rights. Yet we watch people come across the border to work, legally or not, and surrender rights as they enter the country. We watch as our country leads the world in imprisoning people. We watch as torture becomes official policy.

In the midst of this, we see people gathering to call this nation back to its best ideals. From the Poor People's Human Rights Campaign, to groups working for human dignity at the border, to prisoners' rights and capital punishment activists, the common ground of human rights unites people across issues.

The history of the struggle for rights shows that it is a long march. Our timeline shows the founding of the NAACP in 1905; it took more than 50 years to see major change. In the present it is easy to be discouraged as mass movements against war are ignored and the very foundations of democracy are under attack. In this issue, we see the growing movements for human rights. We cannot know how long it will take for them to bear fruit.

Is it idealistic to think that we can make all the rights in the UDHR a reality? We think not, because one true part of our national story is this: we cherish those ideals we learned as children. History shows that rights are not granted from above, they are claimed by the people. As we work to claim rights for all of us, we take the next steps on our historical journey.

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