America’s Human Rights Challenge

Audio From WAMC Northeast Public Radio

Dr. Steven A. Leibo is a professor of International History & Politics
at the Sage Colleges

Like a lot of people I trotted out last Saturday to watch one of those congressional town hall meetings that have been all over the national news. Sure, I understood there would not be a real discussion of the various ways we might go about fixing our broken health care system; that there would be no thoughtful conversation addressing the increasingly common fear that our insurance companies will try to weasel out of any medical claims we might actually make on them. Something that irony of ironies happened to me even as I was writing this commentary. Let alone the millions without health insurance or the thousands who die every year simply because they lack such insurance.

No, I knew enough from the media to know that useful and substantive discussions were not taking place. Rather, that I would most likely find a bunch of people yelling about whether Obama’s goals were more like those of Stalin or Hitler. But I still felt it was important to experience one of those town halls for myself. So off I went, to one held by freshman Congressman Scott Murphy, a few miles from my home. And I should add that Murphy handled the meeting’s challenges especially well.

And happily while there was plenty of tension as the crowds occasionally confronted each other no real fights broke out but I could not help but amuse myself by reflecting on the irony that if such an altercation did break out. If a demonstrator actually attacked someone else the attacker would be guaranteed a right to lawyer but the victim would have no right to medical care. Now, it’s not that I am against the criminally accused having a right to lawyer but it does seem well – odd.

But given my profession, I reminded myself that I am supposed to take a broader perspective at such moments. So, I switched to ruminating on the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights that just celebrated its 60th year in existence. Reflecting on that profoundly important document that was signed originally on Dec. 10, 1948 by 48 nations, with eight abstentions while none opposed which stated very clearly in article 25 that health care should be a human right, a human right that that nations around the world should aspire to supply their citizens with.

And there was plenty within the right’s declaration that Americans, who had done so much to create the document, could embrace like its profound support for the democratic idea. But not surprisingly there was also much that many Americans found troubling.

Granted this was back in 1948 when much of America was still deeply committed to the Jim Crow system of racial segregation. While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights included racial equality clauses.
And of course, the declaration’s definition of human rights differed somewhat from what most Americans had historically embraced. After all, wealthy America has long focused on what one might call rich people’s rights putting its focus more on rights like voting and free speech rather than more core issues like food, shelter and health care.

But over the years America’s ambivalence about the document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has evolved and the U.S. did eventually embrace the values of racial equality so fundamental to the declaration. Yes, committed ourselves. But I should add with moments of emotion and outrage not all the different from that what we have seen at this week’s town hall meetings.

Though today, the issue is not America’s embrace of the Declaration of Human Right’s clauses on racial equality but the question of whether we will adopt as so many industrialized nations around the world have long done, the 60 year old declaration’s call to treat health care as a human right which every American citizen, regardless of financial status should have available.

And no one watching today’s current national debate should think it will be any easier this time to progress forward to fully embrace the idea of human rights that the world community struggled to define for itself sixty years ago.

About Steven Leibo

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