The 10th of December is Universal Human Rights Day, the anniversary of the 1948 signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). What a magnificent affirmation of the human spirit is expressed in its first article: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. As has often been remarked, neither the UDHR nor the UN Charter (We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war) could have been written today, where that sense of united aspiration for humanity has disintegrated and vanished. To quote the opening words of Secretary-General Guterres before this year’s UNGA: “Our world is in big trouble.”
Many years ago, the UNOG Director General also headed the Centre for Human Rights, so as Chef de Cabinet I had the privilege of working within the UN human rights arena. Let me give you my personal scorecard of where we are today on the UDHR (a couple of articles omitted for brevity):
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Spirit of brotherhood notably lacking in today’s international community
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as … property, birth or other status.
Inequality possibly at an all-time high across the world
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Universally under threat
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
Modern slavery widespread
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Torture widely practiced
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
Article 10 & Article 11
Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal. Everyone charged with a penal offense has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty…
Judicial impartiality under threat or non-existent
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation.
Social media and online monitoring make a mockery of this
Article 13 & Article 14
Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
….Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
Not universally respected
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Widely ignored and under threat
Articles 19, 20 & 21
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression…
Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
…expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage…
Doubtful if even half of humanity enjoys any of these
Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work…
Widespread, universal dissatisfaction with work and working conditions
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
Competitive, neoliberal modern economy makes this impossible
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family…
Today under acute threat with no assurance for the future
What has brought us, the so-called international community, to this state, and what can we do about it? And, in fact, the challenge goes beyond mere human rights: what about animal rights, or the rights of the biosphere menaced by climate change and mass extinctions? In this short space I’d only mention two pathways for a more promising future: education and a sense of community. Both are included in the UDHR. The right to education is in Article 26: but we need specifically, and more than ever before, human rights education. In this context I’d highlight the tremendous work carried out by the Venice-based Global Campus of Human Rights, a consortium of over 100 universities worldwide that has trained and prepared human rights defenders and activists in all regions, now under the inspiring leadership of the UN expert and international lawyer Manfred Nowak.
And, finally, a sense of community, so lost today under the crushing weight of nationalism, populism, egoism of all shades — and yet so beautifully expressed by the UDHR’s Article 29: Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible. Without that sense of community — in fact of a shared humanity — which so few countries today seem to embrace, it is no surprise that the other ideals of the UDHR remain unrealized. The “coalition of the world” called for by Mr. Guterres can only be anchored in a sense of community at every level.
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