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Happy International Human Rights Day!

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 75 years on.



 

Today (10th December 2023 - International Human Rights Day) marks the 75th anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In this piece, I will explain the background to the UDHR, describe in brief its substance, evaluate its impact, and comment of the challenges that remain in the field of Human Rights.

 

Background

 

The UDHR emerged from the horrors of the Second World War. The newly-formed United Nations (UN) realised that its founding Charter that urged “respect for” and “observance of” human rights and freedoms was vague and inarticulate. Therefore, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) was charged with clearly setting out which specific rights counted as human rights. Led by Eleanor Roosevelt, the Declaration was drafted with contributions from across the world and took into account a vast range of religious, political, and cultural viewpoints. A key inspiration for the Declaration was the recognition that universal human rights were an essential step towards a peaceful future. For example, one reason why relations between Japan and Britain soured in the 1920s was the British Empire’s rejection of the ‘Racial Equality Clause’ that Japan proposed for inclusion in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

 

Substance

 

The UDHR begins with a preamble which sets out the motivation it. This includes promoting “friendly relations between nations” and securing “a common understanding” of human rights. It explains why it is in the interests of every country to respect human rights: in a society where human rights are protected, no individual should ever need to resort “to rebellion against tyranny and oppression”.

 

The UDHR then contains 30 articles listing rights and freedoms. The first article explains how an individual acquires human rights; they are inherent on being born. The second article then emphasises the universality of human rights; they apply “without distinction of any kind”, including race, sex, religion. The UDHR then gets to the actual substance of the rights. There are obvious rights such as the right to life (article 3) and equality before the law (article 7). There are also more ancillary rights such as a right to social security (article 22) and the “right to rest and leisure” (article 24) and education (article 26). These rights should not be dismissed as being luxuries that distract from rights that address more immediate problems, such as torture (article 5). This is because when all of the rights are considered together, they constitute the basic foundation that individuals require in order to have a decent life. The UDHR is, therefore, an ambitious document. It does not merely set out what human need to survive. Instead, it sets out what a good society looks like. This is supported by the fact that there is a right to “participate in the cultural life of the community” (article 27).

 

Impact

 

It is a declaration, rather than a treaty, so the UDHR is not legally binding in its own right. However, it has had a huge impact in international and domestic law. It has entered international law because it has provided the foundation for binding treaties, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. It has also inspired the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) which has domestic effect, for example through the Human Rights Act 1998.

 

According to the UN, all 193 member states have ratified at least one binding treaty influenced by the Declaration. Therefore, international and legal pressure is placed on any country which infringes human rights; any individual is either able to fully enjoy their human rights or is currently having them denied. This binary distinction makes human rights infringements very visible.

 

Challenges

 

Articulating the boundaries of human rights can be difficult. Many would regard the death penalty as a blatant infringement of the right to life. Yet countries such as America maintain it. There is more of a binary test of whether someone has been tortured or not than whether they have adequate access to social security. These issues are inevitable in a world that is still progressing towards the world envisioned by the UDHR. Some contend that whole new rights should be added; Amnesty International has advocated for a “Right to Refuse to Kill”. In addition, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has proposed that there should be a “right to a healthy environment”. Working out what rights should be protected requires people across the world to identify what it means to be human and free.

 

The most obvious challenge to human rights is that there remain world leaders and individuals who are willing to violate them. Discrimination, for example, exists in every society. This does not mean that the intentions of the drafters 75 years ago have failed. Instead, we must recognise that the protection of human rights demands constant progress and vigilance against new threats to them. Just as the UDHR asserts the universality of human rights, it is the responsibility of all of us to work towards a world in which this becomes reality.


Author: Ben Sheridan


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