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Universal Declaration of Human Rights
— from words to deeds
by Rick Roark

A look at the history, meaning and relevance of this historic document, now 50 years old, and its foundation - the principle of sharing.


The year 1998 marks the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. The UN this year chose the theme ‘All Human Rights for All’, highlighting the universality, indivisibility and interrelationship of all human rights — civil, cultural, economic, political, religious, and social.

The Declaration was one of the first major achievements of the UN, and after 50 years remains a powerful instrument that continues to exert an enormous effect on people’s lives in all parts of the world. Its acceptance marked the first time in history that a document considered to have universal value was adopted by an international organization. It was also the first time that human rights and fundamental freedoms were set forth in such detail.

Mahnaz Afkhami, president of the human rights group ‘Sisterhood is Global’, traces humanity’s efforts to express its basic rights back to Cyrus the Great 2,500 years ago in Persia, continuing with the Greeks and Romans, Magna Carta, the revolutions in France and the US, and the US Bill of Rights. But she says all of these efforts limited the expression of rights to members of certain groups or nationalities. "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights," she says, "was the first document in the entire history of the human race which gave us rights as individuals regardless of any other category to which we may belong. In that sense it is the highest expression of our noblest aspirations as individuals."

The adoption of the Declaration — a Magna Carta for all humanity — stemmed in large part from the strong desire for peace in the aftermath of the Second World War. Although the 58 member states which formed the UN at that time varied in their political systems, patterns of socio-economic development, and religious and cultural backgrounds, the Declaration represented a common statement of goals and aspirations — a vision of the world as the international community wanted it to become.

Since 1948, the Declaration has been translated into more than 200 languages and remains one of the best known and most often cited human rights documents in the world. Over the years, the Declaration has been used in the defense and advancement of people’s rights and continues to inspire national legislation and the constitutions of newly independent states.

Close to home

Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the Human Rights Commission in its first years, offered a challenge to member states during her address to the UN General Assembly: "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."

Indeed human rights continue to be in jeopardy in a great many regions of the world — and in staggering numbers. Hunger, poverty, genocide, discrimination, torture and imprisonment due to religion, ideology, nationality or gender, and lack of shelter, health care, education and work affect more people today than at any time in human history. Whereas human rights were one of the chief concerns member states had in common following the World War, the diverse interests of latter-day governments have robbed human rights of its priority and stifled the ability to secure and protect human rights on a global scale.

But progress can be seen. Judge Navanethem Pillay, the first black woman to serve on the Supreme Court of South Africa, and a member of the international tribunal for Rwanda, cites recent efforts to hold individuals accountable for human rights violations. Over the last 50 years, she says, the international response to crimes against humanity was marked by tolerance of impunity, rather than enforcement of the rule of law. But in the last several years, with efforts like the Truth Commission in South Africa, the international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and the recent agreement by 125 nations to create a permanent international criminal court, this trend has changed. "In the last decade, the concept of individual criminal responsibility has emerged, and gathered tremendous momentum," Pillay says. "We are now, 50 years after the adoption of the Declaration, on the brink of a new era, which could bring legal force to these rights."

UN/DPI Photo by Eskinder Debebe

"Indeed human rights continue to be in jeopardy in a great many regions of the world"

 

The voice of the people

With her final sentence, Mrs. Roosevelt duly noted that the ultimate responsibility to secure human rights lies not with governments but with its citizens. The UN cannot implement programs to secure and protect human rights without the collective will of the member states. In turn, governments have demonstrated poor initiative in implementing human rights programs in the absence of the will and voice of its citizens.

Past experience has demonstrated that the protection of human rights is not simply a matter of building consensus and will but is intertwined on a larger scale with issues of development, freedom, and justice. In turn, development and justice depend inherently on sharing, at both the individual as well as the international level. The success of sharing resources as a mechanism to secure human rights has been demonstrated many times by a multitude of human rights programs and occasionally on a larger scale by programs such as the International Red Cross, the Marshall Plan (following the Second World War), and various United Nations programs.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides an elegant goal for humankind, but we are, as yet, far from achieving universal implementation. The protection of human rights, while fraught with complex issues and problems that span the entire range of human experience, appears none the less to have a simple first step in reaching a workable and lasting solution: implement the principle of sharing on as wide a scale as possible. Not only are there sound arguments and historical evidence to support this approach, it also remains a fact that essentially everything else has already been tried. (Source: United Nations Department of Public Information.)

The 30 Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights may be accessed via the Internet at <http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html> in English, French, and Spanish. A written copy may be obtained in any of the 200 represented languages via the Department of Public Information at United Nations offices in New York, Nairobi, or Geneva.

From the December 1998 issue of Share International


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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005