my view

White House response to pandemic violates Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Posted 9/16/20

After World War II, the United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) for the advancement of certain freedoms considered fundamental to all people. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired …

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my view

White House response to pandemic violates Universal Declaration of Human Rights


After World War II, the United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) for the advancement of certain freedoms considered fundamental to all people. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the drafting committee, and 48 out of the original 58 member nations voted in favor of the declaration, including the United States. Unfortunately, we haven’t always remained faithful to our vote.

All human rights violations within the U.S., past and present, deserve our attention, but I have neither the historical fluency nor wordspace to address them here. Instead, I wish to bring attention to recent UDHR violations since COVID-19 arrived on American soil.

The novel coronavirus name SARS-CoV-2 derives from its scientific classification and the syndrome it causes. Any other name, not widely recognized or accepted, is a direct or incidental racist trope, and violates Articles 1-3. False names with “distinction of any kind, such as race,” or national origin, threaten violence and increase xenophobia. In the U.S., we protect freedom of speech, but not when it compromises someone else’s safety.

I regret calling the pandemic a distraction, but its induction of willful neglect toward social services justifies this label. On June 26, a federal judge ordered the release of children from family detention facilities and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has not complied. Even before the pandemic, these facilities were operating under squalid conditions, subjecting asylum seekers, immigrants and their children to “cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment” in violation of Article 5. COVID-19 outbreaks within detention facilities are commonplace.

Children aren’t the only imprisoned individuals. Many non-violent offenders remain incarcerated in American prisons. Their release could prevent viral transmission to other inmates, attending officers and their families. Imprisonment denies these individuals their right to life, security of person and humane treatment—another violation of Article 5.

Law enforcement responses, both local and federal, to the Black Lives Matter protests demonstrate an alarming subversion of Articles 9 and 20. The UDHR supports peaceful assembly and protects against arbitrary arrest or detainment.

Under emergency circumstances, the United Nations may suspend certain articles of the declaration. A suspension of Article 13 could have curtailed viral transmission, but the White House’s original travel ban still allowed nearly 40,000 Americans to return to the U.S. Instead, the State Department should have partnered with other foreign ministries to offer accommodations for stranded Americans until the travel ban could be lifted safely.

While international travelers introduced more infections to our cities, domestic travelers helped spread the virus within our country. As cases declined in the hard-hit urban areas, those states created their own quarantine policies because the White House never issued broader travel restrictions.

In 2008, false claims about citizenship and nationality generated widespread doubt about President Barack Obama’s qualification to hold political office. These false claims surfaced once again when presidential candidate Joe Biden announced his nomination for vice president, California Sen. Kamala Harris. Derisive, inflammatory language from our highest office violates Article 15, which entitles everyone to their nationality. Ms. Harris is a natural-born American citizen.

Articles 18 and 19 have not been violated. However, I do not believe they have been exercised in good faith. Poor guidance polarized and politicized mask-wearing in the U.S., whereas in many other countries, citizens accepted public health guidance more effectively. Freedom of conscience, opinion and expression are paramount to our political discourse, but they should not amplify health risks toward other human beings. We violate Articles 18 and 19 when we allow deliberate fringe behavior to erode our collective safety.

Recently imposed budgetary constraints on the U.S. Postal Service will prevent citizens from voting in our upcoming national elections. Defunding and removing mail sorting machines violates Article 21 and exacerbates the disparities already existent in suffrage across lines of gender, race, class and political affiliation. Everyone deserves “the right to take part in the government of [their] country.”

I do not believe that catastrophes have to dictate progress, but I do believe that a moment of reflection can deliver great inflection. While this global pandemic has destroyed so many lives and livelihoods, we have also been given an opportunity to unify in our march toward equity, security and prosperity for all Americans. The UDHR may not be a legally binding document, but it was written to guide governments toward a “common standard of achievement.” Let’s honor the UDHR and our vote to advance its mission as the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

Read the full UDHR here

Noah Kaminsky is a middle school science teacher and a youth sports coach. Social change is on his brain.


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