Will America Lead the World Into a New Era for Human Rights?

01/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Christiane Amanpour's powerful new documentary on genocide, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, Elie Weisel states, "When there is a crisis, a moral crisis, human rights should become the number one preoccupation for the American administration." Playing devil's advocate, Amanpour asks, "What if the Americans say 'Why us? Why is that fair?'" He replies, "Because the whole world will say, 'if America doesn't, why should we?'"

Weisel speaks the truth. This week, on December 10, the international community recognizes the 60th anniversary of the United Nations' adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For America, the leader of the free world and a beacon of hope to oppressed and impoverished people around the globe, this anniversary is a solemn reminder of the ideals we stand for and the moral responsibilities we have abdicated for far too long.

Referred to as "a Magna Carta for all humanity," the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that the "inherent dignity of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." The UNDR recognizes the fundamental rights towards which every human being aspires, namely the right to life, liberty and security of person; the right to an adequate standard of living; the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution; the right to own property; the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right to education, health care, freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to freedom from torture and degrading treatment, and more.

According to Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, the human rights movement has made significant strides in the years since the signing of the UNDR. "Sixty years ago, violations of human rights were barely noticed," he said. "Today they are headline news. Governments are always tempted to violate human rights, but the Declaration has spawned a movement that is now able to ensure that abusers pay a hefty price." Human Rights Watch is being awarded the 2008 United Nations Prize for Human Rights in recognition of the vital role it has played in trying to end abuses over the past 60 years.

Yet, according to Roth and other human rights advocates, we have a long way to go.

In Sudan, a genocide has raged for six years unstopped by the world community. UN Member states that agreed to adopt both the UDHR and the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide have not backed their rhetoric with action to end the Khartoum regime's reign of terror. In a ground-breaking report issued on December 8th, the Genocide Prevention Taskforce, co-chaired by Madeline Albright, urged "America's 44th president to demonstrate at the outset that preventing genocide and mass atrocities is a national priority." The group also recommended that Obama create a high-level forum in the White House to direct the government's response to threats of genocide.

In Zimbabwe, a cholera epidemic has been declared a national emergency with nearly 14,000 cases of the disease reported by the World Health Organization. Physicians for Human Rights is asking President elect Obama to invest in global health, specifically addressing women's rights and health, and address the health workforce needs of disease-burdened countries,

In America, we continue to violate both US and international law by subjecting people who have not been charged with or convicted of any crime to illegal and indefinite detentions and denial of their legal rights. Closing Guantanamo, as Obama has promised, is a step in the right direction but it is not enough. Amnesty International calls for an "independent commission of inquiry to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into torture and other abuses in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and elsewhere, and for assurances that those who perpetrated crimes...are brought to justice."

On the eve of the election, as President-elect Obama accepted the resounding mandate of the American people, he stated, "Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope."

The 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reminds us at this timely moment in American history that these ideals can and should extend beyond the borders of our own country to all the citizens of the world.