A 70-year-old as­pi­ra­tion

To­mor­row, the world cel­e­brates one of the most im­por­tant in­ter­na­tional agree­ments: the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights.

The Star Malaysia - - Focus -

ON Dec 10, 1948 – three years af­ter the Al­lied vic­tory over the Nazis in World War II – 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 WWII.

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.

To­mor­row is the 70th an­niver­sary of the adop­tion of the mile­stone char­ter; here is some back­ground.

Di­vided world seeks con­sen­sus

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 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 Dec 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.

In­spir­ing but con­tested

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.

Re­think­ing rights

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 said last month.

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.

Abol­ish­ing mod­ern day slav­ery: In this file photo taken in an air­port, a woman is locked up in a trans­par­ent suit­case with a sign on it read­ing ‘ Stop Hu­man Traf­fick­ing!’ as part of a cam­paign to high­light the hu­man rights dec­la­ra­tion.


His­tor­i­cal mo­ment: The open­ing cer­e­mony of the third United Na­tions Assem­bly at the close of which, on Dec 10, 1948, was adopted the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights.

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