In turbulent times, we must keep fighting for human rights

In Short

It is so tempting to feel defeated in the face of all the crises in the world today. But change is possible.

In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a landmark document that lays out ideals to which governments and civil society alike can aspire in pursuit of a better future for all people. Coming on the heels of two World Wars and the Holocaust, it became a symbol of the world coming together to say that every person deserves dignity, equality and human rights – a newly minted term of art. 

Eleanor Roosevelt holding a poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Lake Success, NY, Nov. 1949. FDR Presidential Library and Museum via Wikimedia Commons

The declaration’s 75th anniversary this Sunday comes at an all-but-impossible moment for American Jews focused on global human rights. Although the declaration has influenced more than 80 international treaties, declarations and national constitutions, we know that its call for human dignity and fundamental freedom has neither been universally understood nor adopted. But after 75 years, these 30 articles remain a roadmap for everyone in the trenches of human rights work, and especially those of us guided by the Jewish values of b’tzelem Elohim and tikkun olam. And even if we fear our world is moving farther away from the declaration’s ideals, we can still find signs of progress if we know where to look.

In Senegal, for instance, youth activists have been leading the fight for democracy for more than a decade. The social movement group Y’en a Marre helped mobilize 300,000 young people to vote in 2012 to oust President Abdoulaye Wade when he sought an unconstitutional third term. The nation faced a similar threat earlier this year when current President Macky Sall hinted that he too would seek to extend his time in office. Y’en a Marre is credited with applying similar pressure during the ensuing wave of pro-democracy protests that led Sall to backtrack.  

For me, their resistance is the fulfillment of Article 21 of the declaration, which notes the government’s authority should rest with the will of the people. Furthermore, Y’en a Marre has cultivated a pro-democracy youth movement that has taken root in roughly two dozen African countries helping to realize the civil rights of countless people across the continent. 

In September, Mexico’s Supreme Court decriminalized abortion, declaring local and national laws that barred the procedure as unconstitutional. It marked another win for La Marea Verde, or the Green Wave, the pro-choice movement mobilizing across Latin America. That victory came after two other landmark wins for reproductive rights in Argentina, which legalized abortion in 2020; and in Colombia, which decriminalized the procedure in 2022. Each ruling was a direct reflection of Article 25 of the declaration, which asserts that everyone has the right to “health and well-being” — including adequate medical care. 

Even my own personal story is emblematic of a world moving closer to equal rights for all. My husband and I just celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary. It is a milestone that would have been unthinkable in the U.S. only a few years ago. It is also a privilege I do not take lightly knowing that there are 64 countries in the world where being gay is a crime. Yes, I am also aware of the 500-plus proposed pieces of anti-gay legislation here in the U.S. that threaten some hard-won rights for the LGBTQI+ community. Progress has never been linear, however. There will always be tension, a step forward, a step backwards. Here again, I look to the declaration for hope when it states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”; and I consider it a stroke of genius that its authors left room for interpretation in modern contexts.  

In a speech at the U.N. in 1958, Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.” It is so tempting to feel defeated in the face of all the crises in the world today, but change is possible. So is progress. As the world marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, let us commit ourselves as philanthropists to taking action wherever and whenever we can. 

Robert Bank is the president and CEO of American Jewish World Service.