70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
9:22am 7th Dec, 2018
70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
On the 10th of December, we mark the 70th anniversary of that extraordinary document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It is, I firmly believe, as relevant today as it was when it was adopted 70 years ago.
Arguably even more so, as over the passing decades, it has passed from being an aspirational treatise into a set of standards that has permeated virtually every area of international law.
It has withstood the tests of the passing years, and the advent of dramatic new technologies and social, political and economic developments that its drafters could not have foreseen.
Its precepts are so fundamental that they can be applied to every new dilemma.
The Universal Declaration gives us the principles we need to govern artificial intelligence and the digital world.
It lays out a framework of responses that can be used to counter the effects of climate change on people, if not on the planet.
It provides us with the basis for ensuring equal rights for groups, such as LGBTI people, whom few would even dare name in 1948.
Everyone is entitled to all the freedoms listed in the Universal Declaration "without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."
The last words of that sentence – "other status" – have frequently been cited to expand the list of people specifically protected. Not just LGBTI people, but also persons with disabilities – who now have a Convention of their own, adopted in 2006. Elderly people, who may get one as well. Indigenous peoples. Minorities of all sorts. Everyone.
Gender is a concept that is addressed in almost every clause of the Declaration. For its time, the document was remarkably lacking in sexist language. The document refers to "everyone," "all" or "no one" throughout its 30 Articles.
This trailblazing usage reflects the fact that, for the first time in the history of international law-making, women played a prominent role in drafting the Universal Declaration.
It is thanks primarily to the Indian drafter Hansa Mehta, that the French phrase "all men are born free and equal," taken from the Déclaration des droits de l''homme et du citoyen, became in the Universal Declaration "all human beings are born free and equal."
A simple but – in terms of women’s rights and of minority rights – revolutionary phrase.
Hansa Mehta objected to the assertion that "men" was understood to include women – the widely-accepted idea at that time. She argued that countries could use this wording to restrict the rights of women, rather than expand them.
Born out of the devastation of two World Wars, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Holocaust, the Universal Declaration is geared to prevent similar disasters, and the tyranny and violations which caused them. It sets out ways to prevent us from continuing to harm each other, and aims to provide us with "freedom from fear and want."
It sets limits on the powerful, and inspires hope among the powerless.
Over the seven decades since its adoption, the Universal Declaration has underpinned countless beneficial changes in the lives of millions of people across the world, permeating some 90 national Constitutions and numerous national, regional and international laws and institutions.
But, 70 years after its adoption, the work the Universal Declaration lays down for us to do is far from over. And it never will be.
In 30 crystal-clear articles, the Universal Declaration shows us the measures which will end extreme poverty, and provide food, housing, health, education, jobs and opportunities for everyone.
It lights the path to a world without wars and Holocausts, without torture or famine or injustice. A world where misery is minimized and no one is too rich or powerful to evade justice.
A world where every human has the same worth as every other human, not just at birth but for the duration of their entire lives.
The drafters wanted to prevent another war by tackling the root causes, by setting down the rights everyone on the planet could expect and demand simply because they exist – and to spell out in no uncertain terms what cannot be done to human beings.
The poor, the hungry, the displaced and the marginalized – drafters aimed to establish systems to support and protect them.
The right to food and to development is crucial. But this has to be achieved without discrimination on the basis of race, gender or other status. You cannot say to your people – I will feed you, but I won’t let you speak or enjoy your religion or culture.
The rights to land and adequate housing are absolutely basic – and yet in some countries, austerity measures are eroding those very rights for the most vulnerable.
Climate change can undermine the right to life, to food, to shelter and to health. These are all related – and the Universal Declaration and international human rights conventions provide a roadmap to their achievement.
I am convinced that the human rights ideal, laid down in this Declaration, has been one of the most constructive advances of ideas in human history – as well as one of the most successful.
But today, that progress is under threat. We are born ‘free and equal,’ but millions of people on this planet do not stay free and equal. Their dignity is trampled and their rights are violated on a daily basis.
In many countries, the fundamental recognition that all human beings are equal, and have inherent rights, is under attack. The institutions so painstakingly set up by States to achieve common solutions to common problems are being undermined.
And the comprehensive web of international, regional and national laws and treaties that gave teeth to the vision of the Universal Declaration is also being chipped away by governments and politicians increasingly focused on narrow, nationalist interests.
We all need to stand up more energetically for the rights it showed us everyone should have – not just ourselves, but all our fellow human beings – and which we are at constant risk of eroding through our own, and our leaders’ forgetfulness, neglect or wanton disregard.
I will end, where the Universal Declaration begins, with the powerful promise – and warning – contained in the first lines of its Preamble:
"…Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.
"…Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief, and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.
"…It is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse as a last resort to rebellion against tyranny and oppression that human rights should be protected by the rule of law."
And we would do well to pay more attention to the final words of that same Preamble:
"…every individual and every organ of society keeping this Declaration constantly in mind shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction."
We have come a long way down this path since 1948. We have taken many of progressive measures prescribed by the Universal Declaration at the national and international levels. But we still have a long way to go, and too many of our leaders seem to have forgotten these powerful and prophetic words. We need to rectify that, not just today, not just on the 70th anniversary, but every day, every year.
No matter where we live or what our circumstances are, most of us do have the power to make a difference – to make our communities, countries, our world a better place for others. Each of us needs to do our part to realise the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The resilience and relevance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent.
At a time when the world marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and at time when human rights and the foundations of the human rights protection system are under serious threats, we, the independent Special Rapporteurs and Human Rights Working Groups that comprise the Special Procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council take this occasion to underscore the centrality of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the international human rights protection system.
We affirm further that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the cornerstone of the respect for social, economic, cultural, civil and political rights guaranteed to every individual and all peoples “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” in the pursuit of peace, security and sustainable development for all humanity.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the backbone of the international human rights system, came into being in 1948, just three years after the end of World War II. At that time, the visionary leaders of the world had the foresight to see that mankind needed an enduring commitment to the protection of human dignity, lest the world go back to the human destruction of the preceding wars which the UN had committed itself to avoid.
Following the adoption of the Universal Declaration, the world witnessed an exponential development of international human rights standards that elaborated the protection regimes of individuals and peoples all over the world. Yet today we are witnessing wars, conflicts and violations of human dignity daily in different parts of the world. Respect for human rights at times has been honored more through lip service than on the ground.
Some States and political leaders have engaged in wanton and egregious violations of human rights. Recent memory is replete with multiple examples of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Impunity reigns supreme in many countries undergoing conflicts or political upheavals, encouraged by narrow national objectives, geopolitics and political impasse at the United Nations Security Council.
The recent upsurge of forced migration which resulted from the various conflicts, economic mismanagement, poverty, oppression and violence, have precipitated an upsurge of nationalism and xenophobia in countries of asylum, which is reversing the gains of international humanitarian cooperation of the last 70 years. We face grand challenges in the face of mass migration and displacement of people globally. Nations are closing their borders from foreign victims of oppression and conflict.
Within States civic space is shrinking against the exercise of fundamental freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Many States do not treat all peoples with the same dignity and equality embodied in the Universal Declaration.
Today the world remains a place where conflict, instability and inequality are increasingly becoming the order of the day.
The impact of climate change leads to adverse human rights impacts on people worldwide, from food scarcity, to shrinking land masses.
We see minority and other groups disenfranchised and excluded from public participation. Human rights defenders are often prosecuted and arrested when seeking to stand up for the rights of these groups. Many of them, including women human rights defenders, have lost their lives, or are demonized, in the pursuit of human rights for all.
While the international human rights system has come under increasing pressure, it still continues to show great resilience to withstand the numerous challenges and to help guide nations and people towards sustainable development and peace.
Today we celebrate the resilience of the human rights system and the contributions that the Universal Declaration has made to advancing human progress, peace and development globally. Over the last 70 years human rights have become an integral part of the duties governments owe towards their people.
Women’s political participation and representation has increased significantly. The protection provided by the international human rights system has increased including by addressing new and emerging human rights issues and demonstrating its capacity to evolve and respond to people’s needs and expectations.
We have quicker and easier access to more information regarding best practices, as well as cases of grave violations of human rights thanks to both technological advancement and promotion of rights to access that information and data. Transparency helps individuals to shine a light on international human rights violations, and provides for meaningful reporting on State practices. Nations are stepping forward to combat slavery and human trafficking. These are only a few examples of how far we have come through ambition, cooperation and global commitment to human rights.
The Sustainable Development Goals also embody the empowering nature of human rights. With the goal of leaving no one behind, the emphasis on providing safe water, quality education, healthcare and peaceful communities are examples of how human rights enable human dignity and human development. As the Sustainable Development Goals demonstrate, human rights are interconnected and indivisible. In order to leave no one behind, we need to embrace a holistic view of development that embraces rights.
The Sustainable Development Goals also remind us of a key concept in the Universal Declaration - that rights must apply equally to all people including those in vulnerable situations. The principles of equality, non-discrimination and meaningful participation ensure that rights are for all people.
Human rights remain central to both sustainable development as well as to sustaining peace and security. It is the inclusion of all people, the promotion of the dignity and capability of all humanity that allows us to promote sustainable peace. The Universal Declaration was born out of conflict and framed to perpetuate lasting peace. It is important to reflect on the resilience of that message, and the need for every person to recommit to the Universal Declaration for another 70 years.
As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, we, the Independent Experts, Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups of the United Nations Human Rights Council, commit ourselves to continue promoting the values, principles and standards enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the entire body of international human rights instruments, and urge the international community to join us in this noble objective.
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