The United States Violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Harry Targ 

Numerous international human rights documents firmly estab­lish the principle that no human being can be “illegal” or outside the protection of the law. Yet despite the clearly established principle that discrimination and abuse based on immigration status are violations of human rights, U.S. government policies continue to sanction human rights violations against migrants and im­migrants.

Federal immigration enforcement policies, including border enforcement measures by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), have led to an increase in racial profiling, border killings, and denial of due process rights. Immigrant workers are often abused, exploited, and have become scapegoats and victims of racism and stereotyping. (See The American Civil Liberties Union, “Human Rights and Immigration,”

Nameless People
The world is observing a massive violation of human rights being perpetrated at the United States/Mexican border today. And the human tragedy has many historical parallels.

Over sixty years ago Woody Guthrie wrote his famous song “Deportees” decrying that “All they will call you will be ‘deportees.’” And “they chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.”  He wrote at a time when the US political economy depended upon temporary immigrant labor. 

Since the 1940s particularly, the globalization of the economy, increased violence and repression within countries (largely involving United States interference),  growing income and wealth inequality and poverty, and the rise of repressive regimes everywhere,  emigration has increased. Some estimates indicate that 37 million people left their home countries (some 45 countries) between 2010 and 2015 for humanitarian reasons. Many more people were forced to flee their homes and communities to other locations within their own countries.

One of the ironies of world history is that capital in the form of investments, trade, the purchase of natural resources, the globalization of production, and military interventions have been common and necessary features of capitalism since its emergence in the sixteenth century. But, paradoxically, and except for the global slave trade, the movement of people has often been defined as “illegal.” The idea of national sovereignty is been used to justify branding some human migrants as “illegal,” while others receive legal status. If capital is and has been global, the movement of people should be respected as well. It makes no sense, nor is it humane, to brand any human beings as, Guthrie’s term,  “deportees.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The horrific atrocities of World War II led nations to commit themselves permanently to the protection of basic rights for all human beings. Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of the wartime President, Franklin Roosevelt, worked diligently with leaders from around the world to develop a document, to articulate a set of principles, which would bind humankind to never carry out acts of mass murder again.

In addition, the document also committed nations to work to end most forms of pain and suffering.

In December, 1948, the year Guthrie wrote his song,  delegates from the United Nations General Assembly signed the document which they called “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” It consisted of a preamble proclaiming that all signatories recognized "the inherent dignity" and "equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family" as the "foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world."

The preamble declared the commitment of the signatories to the creation of a world “in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want...”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights consisted of 30 articles, with varying degrees of elaboration. The first 21 articles referred primarily to civil and political rights. They prohibited discrimination, persecution for the holding of various political beliefs, slavery, torture, and arbitrary arrest and detention.

Persons had the right to speak their mind, travel, reside anywhere, have a fair trial if charged with crimes, own property, form a family, and in the main to hold the rights of citizenship including universal and equal suffrage in their country.

The remaining nine articles addressed what may be called social and economic rights. These included rights to basic social security in accordance with the resources of the state in which the persons reside; rights to adequate leisure and holidays with pay; an adequate standard of living so that individuals and families had sufficient food, clothing, shelter, and medical care; and education, free at least at the primary levels.

In addition, these nine articles guaranteed a vibrant cultural life in the community, the right to enjoy and participate in the arts, and to benefit from scientific achievements.

While each article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provided a rich and vivid portrait of what must be achieved for all humankind, no article speaks to our time more than Article 23. It is one of the longer articles, identifying four basic principles:

  • Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work, and to protection against unemployment.
  • Everyone, without discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  • Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself (or herself) and his (her) family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  • Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his (her) interests.

Using the language of our day, the principles embedded in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights constituted a bedrock vision inspiring the global 99 percent to rise up against their exploiters from Cairo to Madison, to Wall Street, to cities and towns all over the world.

The global political economy is broken. The dominant mode of production, capitalism, increasingly cannot provide work, fair remuneration, rights of workers to speak their mind and organize their own associations, and the provision of a comfortable way of life all because the value of what they produce is expropriated by the top 1 percent of global society.

Data about the world, data about the United States, and right now the experience of emigres from Central America seeking their human rights, make it clear that there has been a 30-year trajectory in the direction opposite to the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Global inequality is growing. The rights and abilities of workers to form unions are shrinking. Standards of living of most of humankind are declining. The ability of most workers everywhere to acquire secure jobs is declining. And, in the case of people fleeing their own countries in desperation, they experience incarceration in brutally inhumane camps.

Fundamentally, the world is witnessing a denigration of the vision articulated after World War II that “never again” would sectors of humanity be victimized by economic injustice, political repression, and state violence.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights must now become the standard by which national policies are judged. Anything short of the principles embedded in the Declaration constitute a crime that must be opposed.