"Human rights is not marginal to who we are; human rights defines who we are. The United States is a country defined by human rights. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all persons are created equal’…. What I’m saying is, it is not that human rights are as American as apple pie. Apple pie was founded, as far as I know, in Bavaria. Apple pie would be as lucky to be as American as human rights."
- Harold Hongju Koh, Dean of Yale Law School, Center for American Progress, Oct. 30, 2008, Washington, D.C.
December 10 is Human Rights Day, which this year celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sixty years ago, in the wake of a decade of war, the world came together in the spirit of hope to declare in a single voice that there exists fundamental rights of dignity and fairness that every person, family, and community hold by virtue of their humanity, rights not granted by governments, but rather guaranteed to each of us as a core of our very existence. It is only by respecting these rights that we can establish justice, equality, and the opportunity for everyone to meet their full potential.
From the Declaration of Independence to the Civil Rights Movement, the core principles of human rights have long inspired and informed the progress of the United States. But some policymakers have shied away from that legacy. Many state governments are considering slashing transportation, medical, and employment services at the very same time that workers are most at risk of losing their jobs and with it, the ability to meet the most basic needs for themselves and their families. While some policymakers drag their feet on guaranteeing a right to health care, 46 million Americans have no health insurance coverage, and another 25 million are underinsured, meaning that even though they pay for insurance, they are one catastrophic illness away from massive medical bills. These crises threaten both the American promise of human rights and our economic security.
These are great challenges, but the greatness of America lies in our ability to work in common effort to overcome even the most daunting of obstacles, spurred forth by our belief in the human right to enjoy opportunity and prosperity. By bringing the American heritage of human rights explicitly to bear in our policy, the United States creates systems that work for everyone while making the nation stronger as a whole. Human rights commit us to health care that is not just about basic insurance coverage, but a guarantee of quality, access, and accountability in the care provided. Human rights challenge us to find solutions that allow families to remain in their homes while reconciling debt in a way that is responsible and appropriate for all.
Though the people of the United States took the first step to restoring human rights by delivering a clear mandate for change, hope, and dignity this year, advocates must take the next steps. The good news is that the public is on our side; our public opinion research shows that vast majorities of the American people support both the concept and the practical policy application of human rights across a range of issues. The time is now to raise the stakes in the human rights movement, to be explicit in using human rights language in our social justice work, and to challenge our representatives to recognize human rights as necessary to the American Dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
U.S. Human Rights Reports and Tools from The Opportunity Agenda:
- Human Rights in the U.S.: Opinion Research with Advocates, Journalists, and the General Public
- Public Opinion: State Policy Leaders’ Views on Social Justice and Human Rights
- 2008 Update: Human Rights in State Courts
- Talking Points: Health is a Human Right