The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70

Human Rights Day is celebrated each year on December 10 but this year, the day is certainly more significant. 70 years ago to this day, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which outlines thirty primary, ‘universal’ rights that all individuals should possess. The formal inception of Human Rights Day, however, dates from 1950 after the Assembly passed Resolution 423 (V) inviting all states and interested organisations to adopt the 10th of December of each year as Human Rights Day. In the 70 years since the adoption of the UDHR, the world has seen the good, bad and ugly side of human rights. From the mass human rights violations that have occurred in places such as Africa and Asia to individuals taking to the streets to advocate for greater recognition of their rights, the concept of human rights has made its way to the forefront of many global political agendas. Nevertheless, at the same time, the UDHR has been criticised for, perhaps being too ambitious in nature so the question is: what does the future hold for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and furthermore, why should we care about celebrating Human Rights Day?

Nobel Laureate, Malala Yousafzai, one of the world’s most acclaimed defenders of human rights invoked the name of Anne Frank in a tweet published in 2017. She stated that ‘the words Anne Frank wrote still remind us to cherish and defend human rights’. Furthermore, Malala, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her efforts to guarantee the rights of girls in her home country of Pakistan to receive a quality education noted that ‘today I am thinking of Palestinian and Rohingya children and all around the world still struggling to achieve Anne’s dream of freedom’.  The UN called the UDHR ‘a milestone document that proclaimed the inalienable rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being – regardless of race, colour, religion, gender, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’. However, the document is not legally binding but it has inspired the development of more than 60 treaties, laws and protocols to assure the freedoms set out in the UDHR. Certainly, the UDHR has been successful in paving the way for the creation of specific human rights treaties such as ones that focus on the rights of children and the prevention of torture but non-compliance by the signatories of these aforementioned treaties has been problematic.

Countries such as the United States who have signed human rights treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) have failed to ratify a number of documents.  The United States in particular, has not ratified any international human rights treaty since 2002 despite the country playing an important role on the global political stage. The failure of the US to join with other nations in taking on International human rights legal obligations has undercut its leadership on several statutes potentially limiting its credibility in promoting global respect for human rights. 

However, organisations including Amnesty International have been crucial for the increased awareness of human rights and recognise human rights as follows: universal (they belong to all persons), inalienable (they cannot be taken away from individuals), indivisible and interdependent (governments should not be permitted to choose which rights to respect and which to ignore). We cannot disregard the work that Amnesty International and other human rights-oriented non-governmental organisations in ensuring that there is a greater global respect for human rights despite events telling us otherwise. Despite the rise of discrimination in countries such as the United States and growing inequalities between individuals, the UDHR plays an important role in our daily lives and we should value the fact that is exists.

No UN-administered treaty is perfect and even something as ambitious as the UDHR has its flaws especially with its notion of so-called ‘universality’. As there was a commitment just after World War II to ensure greater respect for human rights, there is today even though it is clear that some states are more commitment to advancing human rights than others. Nevertheless, the establishment of such a treaty is a significant achievement for the international community. Since 1948, much has changed in the world of human rights but changes have been brought about in some countries.

With that said, happy 70th birthday to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You have come a long way and we look forward to seeing how you will shape and hopefully change the future.