Today, International Human Rights Day, is the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It's a good day to visit the U.S. Human Rights Network's site and to read, or re-read, a copy of the Declaration.
At the time of its framing, the UDHR was clearly an aspirational document; it represented a wish, an ideal for which the world's nations should strive. It's interesting to learn that initially there was some debate about whether abolition of the death penalty fell within the scope of that ideal. In her book Death of Innocents, Sister Helen Prejean writes:
It was to be expected when Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was debated back in the 1940s that such a declaration, which granted everyone the right to life without qualification, would provoke debate, and one of the first proposed amendments was that an exception ought to be made in the case of criminals lawfully sentenced to death. Eleanor Roosevelt urged the committee to resist this amendment, arguing that their task was to draw up a truly universal charter of human rights toward which societies could strive. She foresaw a day when no government could kill its citizens for any reason.
Today, unlike 60 years ago, the majority of the world's countries have abolished the death penalty. There is so much left to accomplish with respect to human rights in general and the death penalty in particular, but today, on this historic anniversary, we can take a moment to recognize the distance come.
Today is also the fourth anniversary of the founding of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. In our first public statement, we said
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that sets forth the most basic principles regarding the value of human life and the way human beings ought to treat one another, was inspired by victims, demanded by victims. It grew out of the suffering of millions of civilians murdered under the brutal regimes of the Second World War, and its adoption on December 10, 1948 was a way to honor the loss of these lives, and an attempt to give meaning to the loss, by asserting that such violations are neither moral nor permissible under any nation or regime.
Now is the time to raise our voices again and insist that violations of human life in the form of the death penalty or other state killings are not permissible under any nation or regime. It is time to call for the abolition of the death penalty because the only way to uphold human rights is to uphold them in all cases, universally.
We believe that survivors of homicide victims have a recognized stake in the debate over how societies respond to murder and have the moral authority to call for a consistent human rights ethic as part of that response. Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights is the answer to that call.
We are immensely grateful to all the members and allies who have helped to answer that call and who have accomplished so much in these four years. Happy Birthday and Happy Human Rights Day to all of us.