On the evening of Friday, Dec. 10, 1948, the plenary session of the United Nations convened at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. A robust discussion about a proposed statement on human rights ensued. Ultimately, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by 48 votes with eight abstentions. The sitting U.N. president, Mr. Herbert Vere Evatt of Australia, remarked that it was “the first occasion on which the organized community of nations had made a declaration of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” It's not surprising that the UDHR came about as a direct commentary on the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Although this December marks the 70th anniversary of the UDHR, we feel compelled to ask whether we have made progress in realizing the principles articulated seven decades ago. Or does it feel like 1948 all over again?
In October, one of the co-authors of this piece, Katherine Peeler, visited an immigrant detention center in Texas. Julia, a migrant whose name has been changed to protect her identity, walked into one of the small rooms set up around the perimeter of a makeshift legal “office.” She was there for a psychological evaluation. She and her 7-year-old son, Wilfred (whose name has also been changed), arrived to the U.S. in June, and were almost immediately forcibly separated per U.S. government policy. Julia’s lawyers, who were assisting her with the pre-asylum screening process, wanted to better understand how detention, and more importantly, the separation from her child, had affected her.
“Separation,” however, does not truly describe what happened. In reality, Wilfred was kidnapped. While Julia knew who had taken Wilfred — the U.S. government — she did not know where he was or how he was doing, information she didn't know for 20 days. Julia was kept in immigration detention during that time, desperate for news of her son. They weren't reunited until mid-September — three months after they'd been separated.
People who arrive in the U.S. either without documents (or without valid documents) and who express a fear of returning to their home countries may be subject to a credible fear interview with immigration officials. Julia had her interview one week after U.S. officials took Wilfred. As such, the transcript of Julia’s interview is almost non-sensical. No matter what question the asylum officer asked, Julia’s response was “where is Wilfred?” To conclude that she was conducting the most important interview of her life under stressed conditions is an understatement.
The UDHR consists of a preamble and 30 short articles. Julia’s story highlights multiple violations of the rights described by the UDHR: Article 5 — no one shall be subjected to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; Article 12 — no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence; Article 14 — everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution; Article 25 — motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance.
The Trump administration’s recently proposed changes to the public charge rule, if adopted, are a direct violation of UDHR’s stated right to food, clothing, housing, medical care and essential social services. And Trump’s efforts to limit how immigrants can request asylum (though temporarily stayed by a federal judge) violates Article 14, forcing people to live in conditions where their rights are continually violated and their lives are in danger.
But immigration is only one context in the U.S. where violations of the UDHR occur. The U.S. incarcerates a larger share of its population than any other country in the world, worsening a cycle of poverty. And in our on-going battles over healthcare “reform” the stakeholders with the deepest pockets are often able to dictate who gets health care, of what quality and when. As renowned physician anthropologist Paul Farmer notes:
“…whenever and wherever social services are seen as commodities rather than rights, chances are that catastrophic health expenditures will serve as a brake on progress in the fight against poverty and for health.”
But there is reason for hope. While, as a nation, we are in desperate need of acting “towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” as outlined in the UDHR, we are making small but incremental progress at the local level. Harvard medical students and residents at Massachusetts General Hospital, for example, are running pro-bono clinics performing physical and psychological evaluations to document evidence of immigrants' asylum claims. Across the river, Harvard law students and lawyers are providing the legal assistance for these same asylum-seekers, as are students and professionals from other clinics and legal services organizations across Boston.
it is time for a loud, united and public reaffirmation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ...
There are movements to provide access to quality health care and public health services for the homeless at Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, the incarcerated through the Crimson Care Collaborative, and victims of human trafficking through the Boston-based grassroots group HEAL Trafficking.
On this 70th anniversary, it is time for a loud, united and public reaffirmation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to support and promote the rights of all individuals — immigrants or citizens, women like Julia and children like Wilfred. Let us protect these fundamental rights through education as outlined in Article 26 — “education…directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
That’s our call in the New Year.
Sabi Ardalan is assistant clinical professor at Harvard Law School and assistant director of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program. J. Wesley Boyd is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS), a staff psychiatrist at Cambridge Health Alliance and a faculty member in the HMS Center for Bioethics. Katie Peeler is a pediatric critical care physician in the division of medical critical care at Boston Children's Hospital and on faculty at Harvard Medical School.