The UN at 75: Human
rights and global pandemic
University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland
This column reflects on the continuing relevance of human rights in the 75th anniversary year of
the founding of the United Nations. Despite the background circumstances, which included the
catastrophe of a recent world war, ongoing colonial violence, and the dawn of the nuclear age, the
new international body adopted the language and ideology of human rights as the moral foundation
for the new world order. 75 years later, amidst a global pandemic, and in light of other pressing
problems that include economic inequality, the return of pervasive ethno-nationalism, and the
inevitable consequences of human-induced climate change, how well has this moral foundation
stood the test of time?
United Nations, global pandemic, human rights, genocide, Covid-19, moral concern, empathy,
During the 75th anniversary year of the founding of the United Nations (UN), amidst a global
pandemic that is laying bare the frailties of internationalism as a political ideology, it is worth
taking the measure of the moral underpinnings of this political ideology, human rights. In thinking
of human rights as the most important moral project behind the creation of the UN in 1945, it is
useful to consider both the immediate precursor to its establishment and the language through
which this moral project was expressed.
Like the League of Nations before it, the UN was born of war, and not just any war or conflict,
but the cataclysm of ‘world’ war, in which approximately 80 million people died; nuclear weapons
were used intentionally to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians; and centuries of European anti-
Semitism that culminated in the ‘Final Solution’, in which German technological capacity was
combined with a doctrine of racial extermination in the most devastating genocide in human
history. As the Preamble to the UN Charter makes clear, the creation of the UN was not just a
Mark Goodale, Professor of Cultural and Social Anthropology and Director, Laboratory of Cultural and Social Anthro-
pology (LACS), University of Lausanne, 1015 Lausanne, Switzerland.
Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights
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response to the horrors of the Second World War; the ‘scourge of [world] war’ had brought ‘untold
sorrow to [humankind]’ twice in the twentieth century. Between the First and Second World Wars,
approximately 100 million people died as a result of military violence, genocide, starvation,
disease, and injury, an unprecedented record of suffering and dehumanization for which humans
themselves were directly responsible.
What was the moral foundation of the ‘international organization to be known as the United
Nations’, which was established in order to prevent such scourges from ever returning? It was the
condition of immanent ‘dignity and worth of the human person’, without regard to nationality,
ethnic or racial identity, or gender, a moral status that gave rise to equally immanent and universal
entitlements: ‘fundamental human rights’. So, with many parts of the world still in ashes, with the
charnel house of war and genocide still smoldering,andwiththeNurembergtrialsstillon
the horizon, the 50 countries that signed the UN Charter in June 1945 did so as a leap of faith
in the moral truth of universal human dignity and the entitlements this entailed.
These preceding circumstances are the reason I describe the legacy of human rights as a moral
project, one that involved the projection of moral aspirations into an uncertain, even unlikely,
future. With all evidence tragically to the contrary in 1945, how else could ‘fundamental human
rights’ be expressed? In a largely colonial world, within a new organisation committed to nation-
State sovereignty and anchored around a permanent Security Council that demonstrated from the
beginning how some members of the international ‘community’ were more equal than others, the
importance of human rights in practice could only be prospective, an aspiration, something to work
toward in the distant future.
Three years later, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) gave more
elaborate form to this moral project, Eleanor Roosevelt, the Chair of the UN Commission on
Human Rights, reaffirmed its prospective nature, despite the Declaration’s juridical trappings.
In a Foreign Affairs article that was published in the months before the adoption of the UDHR
in December 1948, Roosevelt reflected on what she described as the ‘promise’ of human
rights: the fact that such a contrarian, even utopian, moral vision, announced at such a time
(three years after the end of the Second World War, but with its consequences still omnipre-
sent), would only – if ever – be realised many decades hence. As she explained, the imme-
diate impact of the UN’s adoption of the UDHR would be minimal. Instead, its moral-didactic
essence would only be revealed with time, perhaps a long time, a historical longue dur ´
which the moral project of human rights might ‘helpforwardverylargelytheeducationofthe
peoples of the world’.
As we know in retrospect, Roosevelt’s predictions turned out to be accurate in both senses. The
political and legal impacts of human rights did, indeed, remain largely symbolic, and not only
because the radically opposing logics of the Cold War emerged as the dominant drivers of inter-
national relations. Except for a relatively small number of diplomats and activists, the entering into
force in 1976 of both the ICCPR and the ICESCR, over thirty years after the UN Charter solemnly
proclaimed its ‘faith in fundamental human rights’, was a moment in history that caused hardly a
ripple. Indeed, in March 1976, when the covenant guaranteeing ‘civil and political’ human rights
became legally binding, a covenant that recognised the primordial ‘inherent right to life’, crimes
against humanity were being committed yet again, this time in ‘Democratic Kampuchea’, where
1. Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘The Promise of Human Rights’ 1948 26(3) Foreign Affairs 470, 477.
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the Khmer Rouge were in the process of ‘smashing’ 2 million fellow Cambodians as the cost of
Yet during these same decades and later, the promise of human rights as a moral project was
beginning to bear fruit, albeit in subtle ways that could only be seen through tantalizing traces of
influence: Nelson Mandela invoking the UDHR during his famous ‘I Am Prepared to Die’ speech
before being sentenced to life in prison in 1964; V´aclav Havel and other members of the outlawed
Charter 77 movement using human rights to criticise State repression in Czechoslovakia and other
Soviet bloc countries; the use of human rights in an effort to ‘reconstruct’
global values by
different Caribbean and African countries during the process of decolonization; and the increasing
mobilisation of human rights in the fight for the ‘cultural survival’ of the world’s indigenous
But it was not until after the end of the Cold War that the moral project of human rights could be
said to have truly shaped, on a large scale, the ‘education of the peoples of the world’, as Eleanor
Roosevelt imagined. The 1990s was without question the Hesiodic Golden Age for human rights,
the golden decade that, like the Ages of Man, would eventually give way to decline, backlash, and
Yet before this could happen, these roughly ten years of halcyon florescence formed a
period in which a ‘culture of human rights’ took root in many parts of the world, often at the
grassroots level where human rights were vernacularised as a moral language, as an emancipatory
narrative, and as a ‘way of life’.
At the same time, the dissolution of the bipolar Cold War system opened up new possibilities for
international mobilisation through historic world conferences, during which the terms of human
rights as a moral project could be negotiated and renegotiated in ways not possible during the
preceding decades. In 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna reaffirmed the
universality of human rights and launched the post-Cold War era with a burst of internationalist
enthusiasm. Two years later, during the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, First
Lady of the United States Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a provocative speech about ten kilometres
away from where hundreds of young democracy and human rights activists had been massacred by
the Chinese government six years before. In her speech, Clinton made the argument to the 20,000
gathered participants from over 189 countries that ‘human rights are women’s rights and women’s
rights are human rights’, thereby ensuring that women’s rights would become an essential part of
the human rights bedrock during this decennium mirabilis. (Yet even the golden age of human
rights was marred by ‘untold sorrow’, including in the years during and between the Vienna and
Beijing Conferences when the scourge of genocide reared its ugly head in the former Yugoslavia
Although the UN Secretary-General could confidently declare in 2000 that that world was
living through the ‘Age of Human Rights’,
this age was, in fact, drawing to a close. Whether it
2. Alexander Hinton, Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer (Duke University Press 2016).
3. Steven L. B. Jensen, The Making of International Human Rights: The 1960s, Decolonization, and the Reconstruction of
Global Values (Cambridge University Press 2016).
4. Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights (Cornell University Press 2013).
5. Jane K. Cowan, Marie-B´en´edicte Dembour and Richard A. Wilson (eds.) Culture and Rights: Anthropological Per-
spectives (Cambridge University Press YEAR); Lynette Chua, The Politics of Love in Myanmar: LGBT Mobilization
and Human Rights as a Way of Life (Stanford University Press 2018).
6. Kofi A. Annan, The Age of Human Rights (26 September 2000, The Project Syndicate) < http://www.project-syndicate.
org/commentary/the-age-of-human-rights?barrier¼true> accessed 25 June 2020.
was the attacks of September 11, 2001, or the images of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners
at Abu-Ghraib, or, somewhat later, the coalescence of organizations like the G-20, which expanded
its influence dramatically after 2008 in order to safeguard global capitalism, the signs were
unmistakable: the epoch in which human rights became ‘one of the key ideas of contemporary
had yielded to a different world, one shaped by global electronic surveillance, the
bodies of immigrants washing up on the shores of Europe’s beaches, and the innumerable rami-
fications of ‘galloping material inequality’, for which human rights apparently had no answer.
Nevertheless, despite these shifts in the status of human rights as a moral project at what might
be thought of as geopolitical levels, the ‘education of the peoples of the world’ continued in much
more fractured, unremarked, even invisible ways. These were the spaces in which cultures of
human rights—diverse, innovative, unpredictable—remained vital in the ‘small places’ of every-
day life well beyond the walls of courtrooms and political campaigns.
But was the continuation of
human rights as a moral project in all of its pluralist richness one in which the ‘dignity and worth of
the human person’ remained at the core of diverse local practices, despite what appear to be
failures at the much more visible international level?
To answer this question, I return to the current moment, the global Covid-19 pandemic of 2020
(-?). In relation to the international level, we can reasonably quickly evaluate whether or not the
UN has fulfilled its Article 1 purposes in the face of one of the gravest and most sudden global
crises of the last hundred years. If the UN was created in 1945 to ‘take effective collective
measures for the prevention and removal of threats’, to ‘achieve international co-operation in
solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character’, and
function as a ‘centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of [ ...] common
then we must acknowledge that the UN has manifestly and tragically failed to achieve
these purposes. Even the World Health Organization (a specialised agency of the UN, founded in
1948) has had to confront the same formidable forces that have completely marginalised the wider
UN as the only supranational institution whose mandate is to respond globally to global threats.
These countervailing forces have different origins, but the most important is the enduring and
not-so-hidden hand of Westphalian sovereignty, which establishes a powerful contradictory logic
at the heart of the UN project. Without having to rehearse all the many ways in which ‘the principle
of the sovereign equality of all its Members’ (Art. 2.1) — with some members much more equal
than others, as we have seen above — has rendered the UN largely impotent during many of the
most consequential global crises since 1945, it is enough to simply say that this legacy has only
been magnified during the course of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
But leaving the failure of the UN to realise its grand cosmopolitan visions aside, what about its
moral underpinnings? Have our responses to the pandemic — in all their multiplicity — shown
signs of the ‘education of the peoples of the world’ through human rights? I think, in fact, this is
7. Ulf Hannerz, ‘‘‘Human rights’’ has become one of the key ideas of contemporary world-making’ in Sally E. Merry and
Mark Goodale (eds.) The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law Between the Global and the Local (Cambridge
University Press 2007).
8. Samuel Moyn, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Belknap Press of Harvard University 2018); Mark
Goodale, ‘What Are Human Rights Good For?’ (19 July 2018, Boston Review) <http://bostonreview.net/global-justice/
mark-goodale-what-are-human-rights-good> accessed 25 June 2020.
9. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (Pluto
10. Charter of the United Nations, Article 1, ‘Purposes and Principles’.
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actually the much more important question. As we have seen, within an international system
marked by increasing levels of nationalist closure and tension between nation-States even within
relatively successful regional bodies such as the European Union, the responses by individual
States have varied widely. Although some States have followed international guidelines to greater
or lesser degrees, the approaches of others have been puzzling, inexplicable, even bizarre. It is only
a matter of luck that a person lives in a country like Germany or New Zealand, which has imposed
rational public health restrictions based on scientific advice, or in a country like the United States,
where gun-toting activists protest for the ‘right’ to become infected and whose president specu-
lated in front of a national audience that people might experiment by injecting themselves with
household disinfectant as a cure for the virus.
Beyond the capriciousness in State responses to the global Covid-19 pandemic, however,
something very different and much more hopeful has been seen: people coming together on small
scales in ways that reflect genuine moral concern, empathy, and what in French would be described
as interreconnaissance. Here, I am referring to the instances — from Mumbai to New York City —
in which people emerge onto balconies once a day to cheer medical workers; the fact that hundreds
of thousands of people around the world have volunteered to make deliveries of food to elderly
neighbours; and the ways in which educators have responded with tremendous creativity in the
face of personal and professional challenges, thereby playing a key role in ensuring the human
right to education.
Yet when people in Dhaka play music from their balcony to boost morale in their immediate
neighbourhood, they know that people living under lockdown in Italy cannot hear them, and vice
versa. It would be a stretch to make the moral argument that in playing music to lift the hearts of
their neighbours, people in these instances are acting ‘towards one another in a spirit of [person-
hood]’, as Article 1 of the UDHR imagines. But perhaps this is assuming too much, or, rather, too
little? In singing opera from his balcony, knowing that this gesture will eventually reach the
attention of national and then international media, is the man in Venice also projecting moral
concern — even implicitly — to everyone around the world who will learn of this gesture? And if
so, is this evidence, in fact, that the education of the peoples of the world to see themselves as
‘members of the human family’ has been much more pervasive than supposed?
The way in which we interpret these gestures, these signs, during these months and possibly
years of global crisis will tell us much about what the course of the future will likely hold. Does our
‘performance’ as moral actors provide ‘evidence for hope’ that we will (re-)act in a spirit of
interreconnaissance, despite the everyday categories that divide us, to confront the crises that are
surely coming for us at even bigger scales: those caused by human-induced climate change;
nuclear war; and yes, other pandemics, except those that are exponentially worse than the global
What happens when one of the dreaded filoviruses like Ebola mutates and becomes transmit-
table through the air, like Covid-19, and not only through blood and other bodily fluids, which has
made the terrible viral haemorrhagic fevers like Ebola and Marburg much easier to contain? Ebola,
which has a mortality rate of between 60%and 90%(compared to roughly 1%for Covid-19), has
been called a ‘slate clearer’, a ‘hot’ virus whose effects on the human — and not just the human —
11. Kathryn Sikkink, Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century (Princeton University Press
2017); Further, for a ‘hopeful’ approach to questions like this, see Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History
body has been described as an internal bomb going off.
It’s almost impossible to imagine what it
would be like to confront a global Ebola pandemic; in any event, it would bring a level of ‘untold
sorrow’ that would make the scourge of war pale by comparison.
In the face of this and other possible dystopian futures, I do not think we have a choice. The
language, history, and emancipatory potential of human rights as a moral project will remain as
good as any other in establishing a framework that—under the right conditions—can be used to
nurture a spirit of personhood, interreconnaissance, solidarity beyond boundaries. Global crises
like the current Covid-19 pandemic might, or might not, be considered the right conditions in
which ‘faith in fundamental human rights’ might flourish.
It depends not on how States or the UN responds, but rather on how one reads the incalculable
gestures that are made in the equally incalculable ‘small places’ that constitute the spaces of
everyday life. Amidst so much moral uncertainty, so many questions about whether or not our
faith in human rights should provide a sense of comfort as we collectively look to the horizon,
I think the best we can do, in the end, is to continue singing from our balconies.
Declaration of conflicting interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Mark Goodale https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3699-1251
12. Richard Preston, The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus (Random House 1994).
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