Universal Declaration of Human Rights: a 70-year-old aspiration

07 December 2018 - 12:27 By AFP
President Cyril Ramaphosa will this morning deliver the keynote address at the 70th anniversary commemoration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg.
President Cyril Ramaphosa will this morning deliver the keynote address at the 70th anniversary commemoration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg.
Image: PresidencyZA ‏via Twitter

On December 10, 1948 -- three years after the Allied victory over the Nazis -- the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the hopes of creating a better world after the horrors of the war.

It was the first time that countries agreed on fundamental rights and freedoms to be protected on a universal scale, for all people. It was also one of the first achievements of the UN, itself born from the ashes of World War II.

Its adoption in Paris was hailed with a long standing ovation from delegates determined that the world would never again see the likes of Auschwitz and other atrocities.

Although without legal obligations, it stresses the supremacy of individual rights over those of states; it puts economic, social and cultural freedoms on the same level as civil and political rights.

Human rights were no longer exclusively an internal affair, as Hitler had claimed to prevent foreign interference in his affairs. They were now a universal issue.

On the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the milestone charter, here is some background.

The UN's first General Assembly in 1946 created a Commission on Human Rights -- made up of 18 members from various political, cultural and religious backgrounds -- to work on an international bill of rights.

Its drafting committee first met in 1947 under the dynamic chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of the US president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Its other representatives were from eight countries, selected with regard for their geographical distribution, with Canada's John Peters Humphrey and Rene Cassin from France playing key roles in the drafts.

In 1948 the committee submitted to the UN's third General Assembly in Paris, which started in September, a draft for feedback from member states, with over 50 participating in the final document.

The version the assembly adopted on December 10 had the backing of 48 of the UN's then 58 countries. Of those who did not vote, Yemen and Honduras were absent. Eight abstained: Belarus, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Yugoslavia.

"At a time when the world was divided into Eastern and Western blocks, finding a common ground on what should make the essence of the document proved to be a colossal task," the UN says on its website.

Communists said there was an over-emphasis on individual and political rights at the expense of social rights; Western democracies were wary of the declaration becoming a restrictive legal tool that could be used against them by their own their colonies.

Despite the doubts and debates at the time of its creation, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights inspired all post-war treaties and is regarded as the foundation of international human rights law.

The international conventions against the discrimination of women in 1979 and against torture in 1984, the rights of children in 1990, the creation of the International Criminal Court in 1998 -- all are its direct descendents.

It also inspired the "right to intervene" in another country on humanitarian grounds, as championed by former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, who co-founded Doctors Without Borders.

But the declaration has not been able to prevent violations of the rights it espouses.

Nor has it escaped criticism, including that the concept of "universalism" is little more than a Western diktat, and with ideological, cultural and religious resistance from various countries, such as those that apply Islamic Sharia law.

Seventy years after its adoption, there are some calls for the declaration to be updated.

It should, for example, take into account new challenges such as climate change, mass migration and modern technologies, France's Human Rights League president Malik Salemkour told AFP in November.

It should also more concretely address situations where its key goals are far from being achieved, for example, in gender equality and the abolition of the death sentence, he said.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 took inspiration from the 13th-century Magna Carta, the US Declaration of Independence of 1776, and France's 1789 Rights of Man.

Unlike the others, however, the 1948 document is the first to say that all human beings are free and equal in "dignity" as well as rights.

Here is a summary of the rights charters that informed the declaration adopted by the United Nations 70 years ago, in the aftermath of World War II.

- 1215: Magna Carta -

England's "Magna Carta", which means "Great Charter", is seen as a foundation stone for modern constitutions and the first text to deal with the rights of man.

Putting an end to a rebellion against unpopular King John, it established for the first time that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law.

England's Bill of Rights of 1689 went further in regulating relations between the monarchy and people, imposing limits on the king's powers and boosting the rights of parliament, including to free elections and speech.

- 1776: US Declaration of Independence -

Adopted as 13 American colonies at war with Britain declared themselves independent, the document stated that all men were born equal and had certain inalienable rights, including to life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

Ten amendments to the US federal Constitution in 1789 resulted in a US Bill of Rights that guaranteed freedom of expression and religion to all Americans, as well as the right to a fair trial and "to keep and bear arms".

- 1789: Rights of Man -

Also in 1789, France's National Assembly set out the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" which was built around the trinity of liberty, equality and fraternity.

It would become a foundational text for the French Revolution against the monarchy, which began the same year, and asserted the right to people's rule.

Article 6, for example, states that the law "is the expression of the general will" and all "citizens have the right of contributing personally or through their representatives to its formation". 

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