Human rights are elusive for a reason: We live in an imperfect world. We slide in times of crisis, when war and prejudice eclipse moral judgment. Indefinite detention, black sites, torture. Politics fails because the right thing and the popular thing rarely align.
Today’s 65th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a chance to revisit where we’ve been and resolve where we need to go.
The history of the Pacific Northwest is instructive, with significantly more good than bad. We have a vital labor community (Article 23 (4): “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”) And Washington was in the vanguard of comparable worth for women, culminating in the 1983 ruling by U.S. District Judge Jack Tanner. (Also Article 23, (2) “Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.”)
Even marriage equality, never on the radar of Eleanor Roosevelt and other Declaration drafters, is inherent in Article 16, that marriage is entered into with the “free and full consent of the intending spouses.”
We also know our failures: De facto genocide of the indigenous population and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
The challenge is to throw contemporary questions into relief, with the Declaration as a touchstone. In the long view of history, how will we be judged? The Snohomish County Jail, for example, is the area’s largest facility for those living with mental illness. It’s as much a policy conundrum as a human rights travesty. Human trafficking is a regional menace, yet it’s largely invisible (Article 4, “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude.”) We embrace equal representation, yet state lawmakers can’t muster the votes to pass the Washington Voting Rights Act.
Does it matter if solitary confinement at the Monroe Correctional Complex’s Intensive Management Unit is judged inhuman or degrading? Does SeaTac’s example of a higher minimum wage have a human rights component? (Article 25, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing.”) The list goes on: Capital punishment. Federal immigration reform.
Over time, the battle for human rights becomes a force that gives us meaning. The best venue to mark International Human Rights Day is tonight’s celebration sponsored by the Snohomish County Human Rights Commission and County Executive John Lovick. It’s from 6 to 8 p.m. on the first floor of the Robert Drewel Building on the county campus, 3000 Rockefeller Avenue in Everett.
Lift up your voice and be heard.