Universal rights remain distant

Sunday, November 29, 1998

Fifty years after it was signed by the nations of the world on Dec. 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Rights remains a distant ideal in much of the world.

For millions of people, there won't be time or opportunity to commemorate the anniversary. Buddhists in Tibet will be too busy praying for an end to Chinese oppression and the return of their exiled leader. Indonesian Christians will be engaged in rebuilding their churches destroyed last week by angry mobs. Baha'is unfortunate enough to live in Iran will be struggling to survive a regime intent on wiping them out.

Nevertheless, there is something to celebrate on Dec. 10 — however bittersweet the occasion. Adopted without dissent by the United Nations 50 years ago, the Declaration affirms the “inalienable rights” of every human being, including the right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” The worldwide recognition of religious freedom as a universal, inalienable right remains an extraordinary achievement, a momentous decision for liberty and justice.

Unfortunately for more than half the world's people, it's far easier to proclaim liberty than to protect it. Too many governments — including signatories of the Declaration — deny their citizens full freedom of religion.

The list is depressingly long: More than 1.5 million Christians and animists have been killed in southern Sudan since 1989. Shiite Muslims are persecuted in Iraq. Pakistanis face torture or death if they convert from Islam to Christianity. And the suffering goes on and on, implicating governments throughout the world.

Still, even in light of all the suffering and violence, the Declaration of Rights is worth celebrating. The evil acts of these regimes mock the document, but they don't render it meaningless. Affirmation of inalienable rights — if only on paper — is the necessary first step toward achieving full protection for those rights. But the journey from parchment freedom to actual freedom is often long and difficult.

Our own history is instructive. While we added the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment to the Constitution 207 years ago this December 15, we didn't live up to them right away. Though our track record is far better than that of most other nations, our history is marred by slavery, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, persecution of the Mormons, denial of religious freedom to Native Americans and other examples of the gap between the principles of liberty and their full application.

Living up to our ideals hasn't been (and still isn't) an easy proposition. The story of America has been the story of the ongoing struggle to expand the application of our ideals more justly and fairly to greater numbers of people.

But neither America nor the world can live up to principles and ideals unless we first proclaim them. That's why the Universal Declaration of Rights is vitally important. For 50 years, the Declaration has symbolized the aspirations of humanity, providing hope to those still trapped by oppression and hate. The Declaration provides the common moral language to condemn abusive governments and, on certain (too rare) occasions, the necessary lever to take action against repressive regimes.

On this 50th anniversary, the challenge to the United States and to every signer of the Declaration should be clear: The shared recognition that religious freedom is a universal right must be joined to a universal sense of duty to guard that right for all people.