HKS Affiliated Authors

Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy


udhrFaculty Director Mathias Risse writes a letter commemorating the 70th anniversary of the UDHR. 

This year we have also commemorated the 70th anniversary of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, as well as the 20th anniversary of the Rome Statute. The Carr Center has put on a quite a number of events to honor these occasions, and many of you have participated in them or helped to make them possible in the first place. On the very day of the anniversary, I’m writing to you to emphasize what are key themes for me around this anniversary, an anniversary that should remind us of the staggering amount of work that remains to be done. 

The Preamble of the Declaration is directed at “every individual and every organ of society,” and asks all of us to help with its promotion. The first rights one encounters then are not those to life, liberty or security. Instead, the first two articles, each in its own way, admonish us to create a society free from any form of discrimination. Global and national politics are full of reminders of how demanding an agenda that continues to be.  A few very moving lines from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me illustrate the enormous difficulties involved in even having the right mindset for working towards such a world. In these lines he speaks about what the world of privilege looks like from the outside:

“Some days I would take the train into Manhattan. (…) I saw white parents pushing double-wide strollers down gentrifying Harlem boulevards in T-shirts and jogging shorts. Or I saw them lost in conversation with each other, mother and father, while their sons commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs.”

There is of course no presumption that these white parents are not enormously engaged with ending discrimination or other human-right causes, and that the budding tri-cyclists won’t do the same in due course. But it will be a challenge for them to understand the perspective of those who, like Coates, come from a very different social world. So in that sense, this passage makes clear, again, that even having the right mindset for realizing the world the Declaration asks us to build – beginning with the first two articles – is by itself a tremendous challenge.  


To be sure, human rights have come far. Some confidence and optimism are called for – there is evidence to back it up. And yet the human-rights perspective must always be the perspective of the underdog. As far as that underdog is concerned, outgoing UN-High-Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein captured it well when in February he asked a group of diplomats if “we have all gone completely mad” in our acquiescence to human rights violations in a world with resources and understanding to do much more about them. So indeed, the main purpose of this anniversary must be to remind ourselves of the staggering amount of work that remains to be done.

This anniversary also completes my first semester as director of the Carr Center. I’m grateful for all your support in our work, and I’m delighted to be a part of such a wonderful community. I am very much looking forward to working together with you to contribute in all ways available to us at this institution to the challenges that lie ahead for human rights!  

Yours sincerely,
Mathias Risse
Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy