By LaKeshia N. Myers
Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of rights.” I was reminded of this quote last week when I learned of Bishop Tutu’s passing. It made me think critically about the state of the world and where we are nationally. December is recognized as Universal Human Rights Month, a time for people around the world to stand up for the rights and dignity of all individuals. This observance was created to mark the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948.
According to the United Nations, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948, as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. It set out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected and it has been translated into over five hundred languages. The UDHR is widely recognized as having inspired, and paved the way for, the adoption of more than seventy human rights treaties, applied today on a permanent basis at global and regional levels” (United Nations, 2021).
It was in the spirit of human rights that many countries successfully divested from South Africa during the era of apartheid, as the country was seen as a violator of human rights for Black South Africans during that time. Conversely, in the United States, the UDHR was also instrumental in establishing legal precedent that sought to end justification for Jim Crow in the United States.
According to Professor David Sloss, “Adoption of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights created a new international norm prohibiting racial discrimination. That anti-discrimination norm had been a part of the paper Constitution in the United States since adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, it did not become a part of the living Constitution until the Fourteenth Amendment was subjected to the magnetic pull of international human rights law. Adoption of the Charter sparked a chain of events culminating in the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which heralded the end of apartheid in the United States. Many Americans think that modern anti-discrimination law was a U.S. invention that we exported to the rest of the world. In fact, U.S. anti-discrimination law is properly understood as an outgrowth of the creation of modern international human rights law” (Sloss, 2015).
As we prepare to embark on 2022, I hope we all look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and examine ourselves and the policies we uphold and support. Remembering that there can be no masters at the table of justice.