Dear BSR Members,
I'm writing to wish you a happy International Human Rights Day, coming up on December 10. But I’ve specifically chosen today, a moment between the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday and International Human Rights Day, for a reason.
I recently moved back to the United States from Denmark and celebrated my first Thanksgiving in America for more than 25 years. This holiday, like every holiday, holds within it an aspiration and a reality. We all know the story of the pilgrims and Native Americans feasting together—the one we tell our children as we sit down to turkey and stuffing. But we all also know that behind this heartwarming tale is the reality of the brutal relationship between European settlers and Native Americans and that the resulting wounds cannot be healed over one experience of breaking bread together.
And yet, we still celebrate. The historical reality doesn't make commemorating this moment any less meaningful—if anything, it makes it more so. It gives us a chance to remind ourselves of the dreams that brought us to this day and the work that remains to be done to realize them.
I started to focus on this gap between aspiration and reality as I thought about how to mark International Human Rights Day. The triumph we celebrate on this day is the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on December 10, 1948. If you haven't read it, give it a try. It's the most translated document in the world, and for a reason: It’s a remarkable statement of unbreakable principles, a North Star by which to steer all societal and political relations, a blueprint for how all of humanity should be treated. The 68 years since it was adopted have seen the greatest explosion of well-being in human history. Pick nearly any indicator—decolonization, infant mortality, girls’ access to education—and the improvements have rendered much of the world unrecognizable to our forebears.
But as with so many other moments worth commemorating, the founding of human rights contains within it a brutal reality. The UDHR was written directly after, and in an effort to prevent, the unimaginable horrors of World War II from happening again. Since its adoption, human rights have become known as much for their violation as for their realization. I don't need to remind anyone reading this that many of the things the UDHR was written to prevent—slave labor, extrajudicial killings, discrimination—are still with us, many of them in forms and in orders of magnitude that the drafters of the UDHR barely could have imagined.
And yet, we still celebrate. Like many of you, I look nervously into the next year. The international order the UDHR helped to create faces unprecedented threats. But as I look backward, I note that we have made extraordinary progress.
For these reasons, I hope you will take a moment today to think about human rights and the special role that business needs to play in making them a reality. The private sector is one of the most powerful forces in our world today, and we need every business to get behind the promise of human rights—especially in places where challenging realities obscure the light of that promise.
Managing Director, Human Rights