• Martha Minow


In her essay for the Carr Center's latest publication, Making a Movement: The History and Future of Human Rights, Martha Minow discusses the legacy of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights and the profound impact of the human rights movement. 

Martha Minow, 300th Anniversary University Professor, Harvard University

"Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948 must be acknowledged as a landmark because representatives of different religious, national, and legal backgrounds joined in rejecting the horrific war crimes of genocide by recognizing the dignity and worth of every human being, including the equal rights of men and women, freedom of speech and belief, and freedom from fear and want.

"The distance between that Declaration and the reality for so many people around the globe—in terms of economic privation, governmental incursions on freedoms and rights, and new threats of private harms (hate speech, digital surveillance, gun use, pollution, etc.)—is enormous. That distance right now seems to be growing, given the fragility of democratic societies embracing individual rights, the numbers of wars and persistence of violence, and ongoing resource inequality (e.g., the 10 richest men in the world own more than the bottom 3.1 billion people).

"Nonetheless, the Declaration is not just a document sitting behind glass, framed on walls."

"The Declaration alone cannot close the distance between its vision and reality. It does not even provide an accountability mechanism to document the shortfall.

"Nonetheless, the Declaration is not just a document sitting behind glass, framed on walls. Human rights once upon a time was just a phrase, then it became movements around the world, then it animated laws, organized commissions that engage in fact-finding and judgments, then it became something we talk about at dinner tables and teach to children who learn to infuse the language with their own energy and hopes. Human rights teaching, scholarship, advocacy, and institutions have given voice to dreams, changed lives, and planted seeds that continue to grow, even when the vision seems distant from reality." ■

Read the full publication.