Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 74 Years Later

How has American legislation held up to the standards set by the UN in 1948?

Delegates from around the world gather at the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, 9 July 2019

Photo by Matthew TenBruggencate / Unsplash

News & Politics

December is recognized as Universal Human Rights Month, marking the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. This December, on the seventy-fourth anniversary of the document’s conception, we may wonder how the principles outlined in it have been carried out by its signers since its ratification in 1948. Since its adoption by forty-eight countries, the Declaration has been mentioned in over seventy human rights treaties. However, notable portions of it still have not been laid out in American law. 

Following the Second World War, leaders of the Allied powers, more formally regarded as the United Nations, detected the need for an all-encompassing list of protections all human beings should expect entitlement to. They believed that the United Nations Charter, ratified towards the end of the war to promote “universal respect for, and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” did not sufficiently define the rights it was designed to safeguard. 

In particular, widespread knowledge of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during the war showed the need for a comprehensive listing of human rights; both as a symbol of their renewed protection and as a basis for individual countries to support these rights through new legislation. 

Among the thirty articles in the document were numerous protections that are familiar to the American ear: protections against loss of life and liberty, cruel punishment, arbitrary arrest and loss of property, and many other Constitutional principles are included in the Declaration.

However, there are critical differences between the non-legally binding Declaration and actual American legislation. The fourth Article of the Declaration holds that “nobody shall be held in slavery or servitude,” and calls for slavery and the slave trade to be “prohibited in all their forms.” The thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1865, also bans slavery, but with one caveat contradictory to the Declaration: slavery is acceptable as a punishment for crime.

This loophole allows the United States to profit from the exploited labor of its over two million inmates in federal, state, and private prisons. According to a 2022 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, eight hundred thousand out of the 1.2 million people incarcerated in federal and state prisons are forced to work under threat of additional punishment such as solitary confinement, denial of opportunities to reduce their sentence, and loss of family visitation. Because United States law explicitly excludes incarcerated workers from the most universally recognized workplace protections, they are not covered by minimum wage laws or overtime protection, are not afforded the right to unionize, and are denied workplace safety guarantees. Wages vary by state, from nothing in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississipp, and Texas, to a cap of thirty-five cents in Virginia, Wyoming, and Colorado. The national average wage for working inmates in the United States is between thirteen and fifty-two cents: at least half of which is usually taken by the government for “room and board,” court costs, restitution, and other fees. Almost seventy percent of incarcerated workers surveyed by the ACLU said they could not afford necessities with their remaining wages. Meanwhile, their labor generates eleven billion dollars a year in goods and prison maintenance services. 

This ethical question of whether or not it is acceptable to impose forced labor on those convicted of crime becomes more interesting when we look at American prisons’ racial shares: as of 2021, according to a report by the D.C based Sentencing Project, Black Americans are incarcerated at an average rate almost five times that of white Americans, despite making up only 13.4 percent of the national population. In the context of the historical makeup of the police force and the profit of the prison industrial system, many question the use of forced inmate labor as the residue of chattel slavery. 

Efforts are being made to end the exception to the thirteenth Amendment and get the United States closer to the ideal set by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: a joint resolution introduced in June 2021 by House Representative Nikema Williams and Senator Jeff Merkley calls for the ending of the exception on a national level. However, despite the support of one hundred and seventy-five Representatives and fourteen Senators, the bill has yet to leave committee for a floor vote in either the House or Senate.

Another unique component of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the sixteenth article, in which it describes the protection of marriage and the family unit. The second piece of the article asserts that marriage “shall be entered in only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” This principle has yet to be fully realized in the United States, as child marriage remains concerningly prevalent. According to a report by Child USA, “the national think tank for child protection,” almost three hundred thousand children were married in the country between 2000 and 2018: an average of forty-five marriages per day. Of those marriages, about 60,000 occurred “at an age or spousal age difference that should have been considered a sex crime.” Eighty-six percent of the children involved in these marriages were girls. 

Since 1948, the United Nations has made other efforts to decrease child marriage internationally, including the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEADW), which denounced child marriage as a violation of human rights, and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which categorized all humans below the age of eighteen as children.

Although the occurrence of child marriage is not as common in the United States as it is in other nations, it is still a persistent issue that has not been fully acknowledged by the country. While America signed the CRC, it is the only country that has yet to ratify it, maintaining its position as a “Signatory” instead of a “State Party” to the Convention. The United States is also the only Western country and industrialized democracy that has not ratified the CEADW, in contrast to an estimated ninety seven percent of countries who have. These treaties are unlikely to be passed by Congress in the near future due to conservative concerns over the CRC’s effect on parental authority, particularly surrounding religious and sexual education. Some lawmakers also say that the CEADW’s effects would be unnecessary, and that affirmation of both pieces of legislation would damage American autonomy, which is often the case with treaties created by the United Nations. 

There is no federal law banning child marriage; as a result, it is managed by the States under the federalist legal configuration. Some states: Delaware, New Jersey, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island have effectively banned child marriage by setting a minimum and enforceable age of eighteen for marriage, but other states like Maryland, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Oklahoma have more lenient laws that allow for children to be legally married at as young as fifteen years old. Others, like California and Idaho, have no age limit for marriage.

The End Forced Child Marriages Act was introduced in March 2021 by Texas Representative Van Taylor, Taylor but has not made it out of committee for a vote in either the House or the Senate. If ratified, the bill would require the Department of Health and Human Services to study and report on state laws regarding the minimum marriage age and the prevalence of marriage involving a child who is under the minimum marriage age, a step towards national prohibition of child marriage. 

Decades after America signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and committed to its articles, we have not yet fully realized this responsibility. These two examples of how human rights abuses continue in the United States, as well as many others, demonstrate that we must continue passing legislation that gets us closer to the ideal set in 1948.