The 20th century saw many epic battles searing across continents. But not all of these were blood and flames. The most inspiring was the general march of human rights. Sometimes, these too, were violent, as scarring and monstrous as war when the aggressors refused to honor human dignity.
But repeatedly, consistently, the century saw the fighters for human freedom win: whether fighting for voting rights or self-governance, to basic liberties from being second-class citizens and discriminated against on racial grounds.
Who can possibly sum up these struggles? All of the local leaders, from King to Mandela, Gandhi to Guevara, were seen as inspirations to others. The Unknown Rebel, standing in front of the tanks rolling towards Tienanmen Square may not have a name, but is immediately inspiring.
There is one document that gives me more hope for humanity, though, than any other. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is, as one of its principal creators Eleanor Roosevelt called it, “the Magna Carta of our time.”
Within the United States Roosevelt had fought for women and for African Americans during the 1930s and 1940s. But her time at the fledgling UN, as the first Chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights was her grandest role: she would show the world what the UN was capable of and stood for. The tone set in this document would be critical for the freedom and struggles around the globe.
The Universal Declaration is still unfulfilled. Many countries still aren't free. Even those with decent records can make poor and painful choices, as the United States did during the first years of this century under George W. Bush. Whenever civil rights, liberties, and freedoms are suppressed, for anyone, it is a blow to Roosevelt's vision. When an assassin took the life of Harvey Milk or Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest, these are as detrimental, and damaging, as wiretapping and torture.
When, on the other hand, a new South Africa emerged which tolerated all people regardless of any factors as equals, it shows how powerful and enduring the testament has become, and what gains it can achieve through international standards, pressure, and the advancement of a humane humanity.