WASHINGTON, D.C. — McCain Institute Director Corban Teague, wrote an op-ed for The Hill regarding the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) this month. The op-ed argues that the UDHR is largely in the same place it started – the principle of inherent dignity remains under threat, especially from autocratic actors like China, Russia, and Iran, and we have no other choice but to fight to protect it.
“So, 75 years later, where does the UDHR stand? In 1948, we found ourselves in the early stages of what would become a decades-long cold war against the Soviet Union, a regime that rejected the UDHR and the principle of inherent dignity. Today, we again find ourselves in the early stages of Cold War II against the autocratic alliance of China, Russia and Iran — regimes each led by leaders determined to reshape the world order and entirely hostile to the principle of inherent dignity,” Teague writes.
Read the full op-ed HERE and below.
Dignity and darkness: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 75
By Corban Teague
December 16, 2023
This month, we mark the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). History may not exactly repeat itself, but it does have an odd tendency to create striking parallels. Seventy-five years ago, the UDHR was adopted just after a horrific genocide was committed against the Jewish people by a dictator who also invaded his European neighbors in a brutal war of conquest. Today, we see China committing genocide against ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang; Russia invading Ukraine and committing numerous atrocities in what is the largest military conflict on European soil since World War II; and Iranian-supported Hamas terrorists just having massacred, raped and kidnapped over 1,200 innocent men, women and children on the single deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust.
Considering current events, one cannot help but be struck anew by the very first sentence of the UDHR’s preamble: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
The UDHR drafters rightly recognized that it is the dignity of each individual that is foundational to a proper understanding of the rights and freedoms owed to all. They also realized this dignity as a quality inherent to being human, not something arbitrarily given and removed by another.
This emphasis on human dignity was particularly noteworthy in the context of when and why the UDHR was drafted. The world had just gone through two devastating world wars, and it was still struggling to comprehend the savage brutality of the Holocaust. Among the many wrenching accounts trying to grapple with the reality of one of the most heinous crimes in human history, a young Henry Kissinger wrote shortly after helping to liberate the concentration camp at Ahlem that “human dignity, objective values have stopped at this barbed wire.”
The UDHR’s use of dignity of course closely parallels our own Declaration of Independence, which made the revolutionary claim that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” In this, our founders were expressing our nation’s core value proposition—indeed, our distinct national purpose—that each individual has a dignity that is intrinsic to their being, given to them “by their Creator” rather than another human.
However, even as we affirm the intrinsic dignity of each person, we are forced to grapple with a disturbing dichotomy, namely that individuals are also capable of vicious darkness. The very need for the UDHR, certainly in the context of which it was written, speaks to this reality. You only need such a document if there are those who are violently rejecting the dignity of others and violating their basic rights.
Coming immediately after the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, the UDHR did not merely lay out an idealistic set of aspirations, it outlined what was worth fighting to protect. And, as the threat of the Soviet Union became quickly apparent, it also became clear that the principle of human dignity still very much required protecting.
So, 75 years later, where does the UDHR stand? In 1948, we found ourselves in the early stages of what would become a decades-long cold war against the Soviet Union, a regime that rejected the UDHR and the principle of inherent dignity. Today, we again find ourselves in the early stages of Cold War II against the autocratic alliance of China, Russia and Iran — regimes each led by leaders determined to reshape the world order and entirely hostile to the principle of inherent dignity.
In some ways, therefore, the UDHR is exactly in the same place it started. The world remains a dark, brutal place, and the principle of inherent dignity remains under threat. And we have no other choice but to fight to protect it.
Now is not the time to abandon our allies in Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. They are on the frontlines of this fight, not just for their own survival but the survival of a global order that recognizes that principle of inherent dignity. Congress and the Biden administration must continue providing these allies critical assistance, which advances both American interests and, importantly, that core American value of human dignity. America must also galvanize other key democratic allies, including in Europe, to increase their own aid. America and its democratic allies must begin treating that autocratic alliance as the existential global threat it is.
Sen. John McCain was someone who understood the dichotomy of dignity and darkness better than most. As someone who was tortured as a POW in North Vietnam and later stared down authoritarians and dictators, he had truly seen the worst. Despite that, he also saw the deep longing of oppressed people around the world to have the truth of their dignity recognized, and he fought every day to make that a reality. His challenge to us is still as relevant as ever — to see the world as it is and make it better.