The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 70 Years Later

United Nations December 10, 1948, from

Monday, December 10, 2018 is the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. This is a day that often goes overlooked in our calendars, but one that is significant not only in what it tells us about the state of the world at that time but in how it continues to shape and inform our world today.

The document, drafted by a team of representatives from different countries and cultures around the world, was created in reaction to the events of World War II. It has served to define human rights for the past seventy years and has been translated into over 500 languages. The United Nations holds it central to its mission and seeks to educate us on the contents and importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A quick visit to their website takes me on a journey down what is quite an enlightening rabbit hole. What should I click on first? The audio recording of Eleanor Roosevelt reading from the Declaration, the illustrated version of the document, the story about the women who played a key role in incorporating women’s rights, or the living history project that invites me to record myself reading an article from the Declaration and sharing the video? This is going to take more time than I thought. Here’s the link for other explorers among us: UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights

History moves in cycles, patterns and waves, which is why we study it. We all know some version of this famous quotation from George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is symbolic of many countries from all parts of the world coming together and promising to uphold a certain standard for human behavior, with the goal being that history will remember and honor the pain and suffering of the past and strive to do better in the future.

We are at a time in history when the concept of human rights is top of mind and visible in our daily lives. We read about local, national and global events, hear stories on the news or the radio, and engage in dinner conversations on related topics. It seems timely, then, that this major anniversary of the original Declaration is giving us a chance to revisit the definitions and implications of this document. This set of articles transcends the borders of specific nations and cultural perspectives with one unifying goal: protection of human rights. But what does that mean for most of us, on a day-to-day basis, living in Rye?

While some may think of human rights as a distant problem, a global issue that affects other parts of the world, that view has shifted significantly in the current environment. Throughout Westchester and New York State, the incidence of hate crimes is on the rise. Sensing the political unrest as a potential trigger for human rights issues, in early 2017 Mayor Joe Sack approached Rye City Councilwoman Danielle Tagger-Epstein to discuss reinstating the City of Rye’s Human Rights Commission.

Original certificate of incorporation for Rye Council for Human Rights

The original organization, founded in 1964 as the Rye Council for Human Rights, was very active in the community. It held fundraisers, including a production of an off-Broadway play called Jerico-Jim Crow. This organization actively engaged in local and statewide discussions during the 1960sand 1970s aimed at implementing and upholding the global declaration. Through the end of the century, the council continued to meet, responding to issues ranging from religious intolerance to housing discrimination.

One of our current members of the Human Rights Commission, Ruth Merkatz, was also a member in the 1980s. She describes how the council worked to create access for people with disabilities. Congress passed the American Disabilities Actunder George H.W. Bush in 1990 (ADA) as the nation’s first comprehensive civil rights law addressing the needs of people with disabilitiesand prohibiting discrimination. However, the Human Rights Commission of Rye began advocating for access to municipal buildings in the mid -1980s.  As reported in the Gannett on Dec 3, 1989:

“After 4 years of discussion, the Rye Golf Club will build two access ramps for the disabled leading to its public restaurant.”Since the main building, Whitby Castle, was municipally owned, the Rye Human Rights Commission highlighted the need for the golf club to build these ramps; it also urged further provisions including easier access to lavatories and telephones. In addition, the Human Rights Commission collaborated with local schools to increase accessibility for students.

Around 2004, the Council for Human Rights stopped meeting in an organized way. It was dormant for well over a decade before Mayor Sack, Councilwoman Tagger-Epstein and other concerned residents recognized a need to resurrect it. The goal of the current City of Rye Human Rights Commission is two-fold: to provide protocols to respond in cases of human rights violations, and to proactively create an environment of support and protection.

As Councilwoman Tagger-Epstein explained:

It is not enough to respond to incidents when they occur. Education and ongoing support are critical. Human Rights is a much larger concept than what may first come to mind, and it impacts our everyday life. We are raising awareness by working with other local organizations including schools, RAISE (Rye All Inclusive Special Education), local clergy, Rye Recreation, and the Rye Historical Society. We collaborate because we have a shared mission to shape the values of our town.

The Human Rights Commission is here to protect and support the people in Rye, and can be reached through the municipal website: Commission of Human Rights Rye. We hope you will take a moment this week to reflect on the importance of human rights, past and present, globally and locally.


For more information on sources or to visit the Rye Historical Society, please contact us through our website, Rye History.

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