Ramapo law and society professor hosts human rights discussion

On Monday, Dr. Mia Serban, professor of law and society, hosted a discussion among three law, society and human rights experts regarding the upcoming 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). 

Professor of political science and international relations Jinee Lokaneeta from Drew University, Ramapo associate professor of law and society Atieh Babakhani and assistant professor of political science Jean Carmalt from John Jay College provided insight into the global history of human rights and how the UDHR has evolved.

Serban noted her admiration for the scholars accompanying her before launching into the history of the UDHR. “Despite common lore that the UDHR is a Western creation, in fact, experts all around the world participated in the drafting and negotiations,” she said. “This was truly a global effort that was spurred for the Second World War in the hope that we could come up with an international bill of rights ambitious in scope and outcome.” 

The United Nations General Assembly adopted UDHR on Dec. 10, 1948 to initiate preventative measures following the Holocaust. The UDHR sets the precedent that human dignity is an inherent right and that a free, just world acknowledges that.

“Something you may have noticed: this is a women-only panel. This is not accidental,” said Serban. “I would like to highlight, as the UN is doing this year, the very crucial role of women in drafting the constitutions. Everyone knows that Eleanor Roosevelt was the driving force of the UDHR, but there were other women who contributed.” 

Hansa Jivraj Mehta was the sole female delegate from India to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1947-48. Mehta is known widely for her altering of the Article 1 statement, “All men are born free and equal” to “All human beings are born free and equal.” 

The UDHR has influenced constitutions and legal systems across the world, but times have changed. “75 years is a good time to assess,” Serban said. 

Lokaneeta discussed how the normative framework of the UDHR was “the mouse that gave rise to the elephant, which is the declarations, the treaties, and the institutions.” 

Regarding the success of the UDHR, Babakhani said, “It depends on how we define and measure success, not only statistics and numbers, but I do not think they tell us the whole story.”

Carmalt, who shares an activist background with Babakhani, said, “The UDHR translated a form of ethical responsibilities into a legal framework. The simplicity has continued resonance. We can come together through the process.”

Serban noted how implementation is famously thorny in the history of human rights law. She mentioned how various authoritarian and communist states during the latter half of the 21st century became accustomed to manipulating the human rights system in their favor. 

“Famously, eastern Europe and post-colonial Africa had constitutions that looked beautiful on paper but were not implemented on the ground. Now we see Hungary, Iran and Russia manipulating human rights. How do you see, moving forward, in making new mechanisms for enforcing old mechanisms that can uphold human rights laws?” Serban asked. 

According to Carmalt, one of the biggest problems is “the elitism of the human rights practitioner world.”

“They must open up and stop shying away from explicitly condemning income equality, which people do not talk about very much,” she said.

Based on experience studying gender-based discrimination in Iran criminal court and police departments, Babakhani left attendees with something to think about. “We must notice the double standard of violating human rights. Those powerful players in the international community do not treat all violations in the same way regarding women’s rights,” she said. “What matters is not women’s rights. It is about international relationships.”