Rededicating Ourselves to the Unfinished Task Which Lies Before Us

by Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director, American Civil Liberties Union

On December 9, 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt stood before the United Nations General Assembly in Paris, France, to argue forcefully for the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in reply to Soviet resistance. As chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Roosevelt played a pivotal role in the drafting of the document she hoped would become “the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere” after the horrors of the Second World War. Roosevelt’s hard work paid off. At 3 a.m. on December 10, the Declaration was adopted.

During her speech earlier in the night, Roosevelt did something important. She called forth the moral power of America to champion the Declaration and create an international system where basic human rights were respected. “Taken as a whole,” she said, “the Delegation of the United States believes that this is a good document — even a great document — and we propose to give it our full support.”

Nearly seven decades later, American support has crumbled.

Today the United States is governed by an administration that has contempt for the values the Declaration enshrined as the natural rights of humanity. Instead of “freedom, justice, and peace,” President Donald Trump has made fear, injustice, and a systematic retreat on civil rights his administration’s guiding principles. At this very moment on International Human Rights Day, the Trump administration is in gross violation of the Declaration’s human rights standards as well as core American ideals that influenced the document.

Nowhere is this more evident than in President Trump’s refugee restrictions.

According to Article 14 of the Declaration, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” The Trump administration, however, has flagrantly ignored this key tenet. Since coming into office, President Trump has taken a hard line against refugee resettlement, overwhelmingly of Muslims, in the United States.

For example, Trump’s first Muslim ban directed the government to stop all refugee entries for 120 days, barred Syrian refugees indefinitely, and cut the number of refugees the U.S. would accept this fiscal year from 110,000 to 50,000. In late June, the Supreme Court let the administration’s 120-day refugee ban go into effect. When it finally ended in October, the administration couldn’t let well enough alone. Instead, it cruelly extended it for citizens from 11 countries, citing national security concerns. Nine of the countries, not surprisingly, are majority Muslim. This move came on top of the Trump administration’s decision in September to cut refugee admissions to less than half — 45,000 people to be precise — of what the Obama administration had proposed for the coming year.

We all know what this means. Men, women, and children, who could be saved, will die.

The Trump administration is also resurrecting the Bush administration’s unlawful program of secret detention without charge or trial. In September, Syrian forces transferred to the U.S. military an American citizen accused of fighting for ISIS. The military has held the man ever since without revealing his identity, charging him with a crime, or giving him access to a lawyer as required by the U.S. Constitution and human rights law. This secret detention implicates multiple protections of the Declaration. The U.S. government is effectively depriving one of its own citizens of fundamental rights, like access to counsel, the right to challenge detention, and “a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal.” As we know all too well, secret and incommunicado detention without access to a court creates conditions in which torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment prohibited by Article 5 of the Declaration can flourish. While there’s no evidence the Trump administration has revived the Bush administration’s torture program, the human rights community must remain vigilant.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump declared that “torture works,” boasted of how he loved waterboarding, and how he would “absolutely authorize something beyond waterboarding.” And just last month, Trump met with Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been accused of using death squads to murder drug suspects. That doesn’t seem to bother President Trump, who said he has a “great relationship” with Duterte. After a joint appearance in Manila, Trump ignored reporters’ questions about human rights. He has rarely spoken about human rights on any of his international trips.

Eleanor Roosevelt would be ashamed that this is the America Trump presents to the world. She believed the U.S. had a responsibility to be a global force for human freedom and dignity. Instead, the Trump administration is sabotaging the U.S.’s commitment to human rights while giving aid and comfort to authoritarian regimes.

Still, even in these dark times, I believe Eleanor Roosevelt offers an example of how to keep the flame for human rights burning bright in America. During the end of her speech to the U.N. General Assembly in December 1948, she told the delegates that it was essential to “rededicate ourselves to the unfinished task” of living up to the values enshrined in the Declaration. Almost 70 years later, Roosevelt’s torch has passed to us, and I see it everywhere. I saw it at the Women’s March. I saw it in the thousands of people who descended on our nation’s airports to protest the Muslim ban as it went into effect. And I saw it in professional football stadiums and high school gymnasiums across America as people took a knee to protest racial injustice.

Our duty now is to keep that torch lit and make sure that it once again finds a home in the White House.


Anthony D. Romero is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, the nation's premier defender of liberty and individual freedom. An attorney with a history of public-interest activism, Romero has presided over the most successful membership growth in the ACLU's history and a large increase in national and affiliate staff. This extraordinary growth has allowed the ACLU to expand its nationwide litigation, lobbying, advocacy, and public education programs. Full bio >>