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Is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Dead?


A defender of human rights in Guatemala, participating in a Human Rights Day celebration, Dec. 10, 2017. The author of this essay, a former UN high commissioner for human rights, writes that governments profess adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but they fool no one. OHCHR-GUATEMALA PHOTO

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted 70 years ago, the hopes of its drafters and of people across the globe was that it would help transform the world into a place of freedom and justice. Sadly, the declaration is now being challenged as it has never been before. This leads to pondering about its future.

However difficult may be the going, the Universal Declaration retains, and will always retain, at least one feature that no other international document has: it is the declaration that people invoke when they are suffering injustice and violations of their human rights. It remains the beacon of justice for the oppressed.

Yet this is a time when international law is flouted openly by many governments, the powerful and the perverted alike. This is a time of massive and pervasive gross violations of human rights, of human trafficking, of torture and other crimes against humanity.

This is a time when powerful governments assert sovereign rights instead of individual rights, rule by party-appointed officials rather than by democratic rule, a time of primacy of the nation over international standards, of religious primacy over international human rights and of all manner of terrorist propaganda and practices that shock the conscience of humankind.

This is a time when, within a procedure of the United Nations Human Rights Council called the Universal Periodic Review, governments the world over profess adherence to UN human-rights standards and then return to their hiding holes gleeful that they have pulled the wool over the eyes of the world. This is a time of reaction against international standards. This is a time of retreat for regional human-rights institutions.

This is a time when less than a third of governments across the world have effective national human-rights institutions and when courts perform with varying degrees of inadequacy in these countries. This is a time when human rights as a subject is taught in few primary or secondary schools the world over.

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Aficionados of human rights will point to the international norms developed, organs established and rituals practiced in the Human Rights Council and similar bodies. These are not to be discounted, but they must be seen in perspective: they often serve as screens to shut out the cries of the oppressed.

Functioning national institutions, protection by courts, human-rights education, the dissemination of information on human rights: these help promote a universal culture of human rights. We are far from the entrenchment of such a universal culture of human rights.

How, then, are we to view the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? With belief and fighting spirit. It is not a time to despair, despite the numerous difficulties and challenges.

Human-rights work can be put into two categories: seed planting and fire brigade. In the long-term, the former is of greater strategic significance even if the latter remains urgent at all times. The arrival of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1994 was meant to enhance the fire-brigade function, and high commissioners continue to strive valiantly to prevent and stop gross violations of human rights. Alas, the challenge has been Herculean, and one cannot honestly say that the state of human rights has improved since then. How the fire-brigade function can be improved is a question set aside for a later effort.

In the long term, seed planting is the best preventive, promotional and protective approach. One strategy would be for the UN to publish periodically a world report on national protection systems, focusing positively on the institutions in countries to promote and defend human rights. This can be a cooperative venture that will shift international dialogue and cooperation on what more could be done to enhance the protection of human rights within countries.

Another step would for the UN to prepare and publish in as many languages as possible a manual on core international standards and jurisprudence for use by judges in courts worldwide. The UN needs to encourage and promote the role of judges in protecting human rights.

A third step would be for the UN to prepare and publish in as many languages as possible a teaching guide or manual to assist educators in primary and secondary schools to teach about human rights and to spread the culture of human rights contained in the Universal Declaration.

It is by spreading a universal culture of human rights anchored in its philosophy that we can, in the long term, vindicate the Universal Declaration.


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