Final Word

Human rights: a new international frontier?

By Claude E. Welch Jr., SUNY Distinguished Service Professor
Child's face

WHEN I WAS BORN IN 1939, the world was teetering on the precipice of international disaster. Authoritarian or imperial governments ruled over the great majority of the globe’s peoples and countries. Draconian laws in Germany and government-encouraged demonstrations resulted in the flight or imprisonment of thousands of Jews and others. Japanese troops occupied much of Northern China. German forces were poised to invade Poland. The constitutional rights and liberties we enjoyed in the United States and shared with a handful of other countries thus represented the exception, not the norm.

Consider the situation now. Despite vicious civil wars in some countries and threats of terrorism in others, international standards of human rights and fundamental freedoms have become norms by which all regimes are judged. Although the promise outruns the reality in many places, states that flout these norms face increasingly strong pressures. The new International Criminal Court is judging perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) scrutinize the behavior of states, publicizing negative actions. People mobilize against racism, contemporary forms of slavery, discrimination based on descent (i.e., against the “Untouchables” of India), torture, or impunity that is extended to war criminals, among others.

I have participated in these struggles as an academic and activist. It is my task to help students understand: 1) that freedom in the United States cannot be assured without guaranteeing rights to others; and 2) that unless economic, social and cultural rights are protected, civil and political rights are seriously jeopardized. These are issues that should engage us all, as alumni and supporters of one of America’s most globally oriented institutions.

Let’s look at how our undergraduate curriculum enhances international awareness. We were “ahead of the curve” when, in the late 1980s, UB embarked on an ambitious reform of its baccalaureate requirements. All BA and BS students were henceforth required to take courses (among others) in World Civilizations (two semesters, situating major societies in place and time) and American Pluralism (one semester, locating the U.S. comparatively).

Today, we wish to prepare our undergraduates for different futures. Consider how the globe has shrunk, relatively speaking, in our lifetimes. I crossed the Atlantic several times by ship. The last time was in 1964, leaving England to take up my new job at UB, seven days on a rocking liner versus seven hours on a flying sardine can: that’s dramatic change. Each day, almost all of us receive emails from family, friends and strangers while I remember writing and receiving letters from family and friends on flimsy airmail forms. Our TV screens are now replete with images from overseas, a sharp contrast from my childhood, when television didn’t exist. And, as noted at the start of this essay, the world of my early years was marked by war and genocide.

What can and should we do to enhance protection of human rights, as individual citizens, to make sure that such horrendous events don’t recur?

First, I suggest, is awareness. How many Americans know of the historic leadership exercised by Eleanor Roosevelt (first chair of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which drafted the seminal University Declaration of Human Rights in 1948) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (whose visions of the “four freedoms” and an “economic bill of rights” highlighted his 1940 and 1944 State of the Union addresses)? Students at UB in 2007—at least if they wander into my classes—don’t leave without a basic understanding of significant contemporary human rights issues and of the persons who helped put them on the agenda for action. The United States has historically played a proud role in advancing human rights. It’s time to reassert this role.

Second is involvement. “Trick or treat for UNICEF” was a plea many children made for many years as they filled their pillowcases with Halloween candies. Scores (and perhaps hundreds) of UB undergraduates participated in Amnesty International in high school. We can write checks to support worthy causes, not only our university, but also NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders or Defense of Children International.

Claude E. Welch Jr.


Gain the knowledge and become involved: those are prescriptions all of us should follow.

Claude E. Welch Jr. has won numerous teaching awards and is the author of 14 books, many of them dealing with human rights. In 2006, he was named the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from TIAA-CREF.