75 years on

How the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can guide governments through the turmoil of 2024.

In a landscape of seemingly increasing global crises, the the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) celebrated its 75th anniversary in December 2023.

With the horrors of the second world war a recent memory, the UDHR was created as a set of international standards offering more protection for people in times of difficulty, and in the hope that “atrocities like those of that conflict [would never] happen again.

However, 75 years on, the world is facing major human rights challenges again. Human rights violations are being regularly reported in conflicts, most recently in Ukraine and Gaza. For instance, in Ukraine, summary executions, torture, sexual violence and enforced disappearances are among the issues that have been noted by the UN. In Gaza, the UN has commented on unlawful killings of civilians.

Human rights barrister Baroness Helena Kennedy is co-chairing a high level group looking at enforced disappearances of Ukrainian children by Russian occupying forces, a mechanism for them to be returned, as well as a new international legal basis for the protection of children’s rights in armed conflict.

Commenting on this work, Baroness Kennedy said: “The requirement to establish a mechanism in line with international human rights standards is clear, as is the necessity for collaboration at [the] international level among legal experts, organisations – including the United Nations – and states, which must better enforce existing UN mechanisms on the protection of children in conflict.”

In this context, it is apt to consider more of what the UDHR is, how states have engaged with it across history, and the hurdles that it faces in 2024.

What is the UDHR?

Adopted by the UN general assembly on December 10 1948 in a vote of 48 in favour and 8 abstaining, the UDHR outlines a range of human rights that states agreed were to be universally protected.

These include the right to life, the right to be free from slavery, the right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to education, to name a few. While not legally binding, the document aims to provide a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”. It has proved significant in the intervening decades, laying down provisions that have informed the binding international human rights treaties, subsequently enacted by the UN.

Following the UDHR’s adoption, in 1950 the general assembly invited all of its then 60 member states and wider interested organisations to mark December 10 annually as Human Rights Day. Celebration of Human Rights Day has taken place ever since across the world.

Research reveals that on these anniversaries the document was used by states to discuss and support legally binding rights such as freedom from torture, the rights of women and children and protection from discrimination, coinciding with the drafting of new legal documents on these topics.

When wider discussions started to happen around decolonisation in the 1950s and 60scold war tensions and détente in the 1970s-80s, and the challenges of technological change from the 1990s onwards, the UDHR was used as a reference point to map human rights and discuss where they needed to develop further. This was also the case for global security as well as environmental and financial crises in the 1990s and 2000s.

During these times, the UDHR offered guidance and a vehicle for analysis. One example is the human rights implications of the cold war arms race. The UDHR both signalled towards the need for commitment to peace – as Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the drafting committee, commented during its adoption, “the declaration was inspired by a sincere desire for peace” – as well as highlighted where states were placing human rights under threat through nuclear policies.

Over the years, the UDHR has been consistently referred to as a steadfast cornerstone of human rights internationally. It has been likened to “a code of life for our modern world”, the “20th-century Magna Carta” and an “international yardstick with which governments can measure progress in the field of human rights”.

Nevertheless, continuing effort has been necessary to implement the rights that the UDHR protects. In 1973, the UN secretary-general, Kurt Waldheim, reflected on this, stating: “It is well that we remind ourselves of the realism, as well as the idealism, of those who created that great Declaration … it would be wrong to say that the fundamental freedoms set out in the Declaration have been universally achieved.”

The UDHR today

As in earlier decades in times of emergency, conflict and global change, states do not always fully implement the rights contained in the UDHR. Examples recently highlighted by the UN include the the right to participate in elections, effective administration of justice and law enforcement, and the right to an adequate standard of living, such as access to water and sanitation.

The UDHR’s recognition and protection of the “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”, as outlined in its preamble, is still highly relevant, especially because of the contemporary crises facing human rights.

The fundamental protections outlined in this document, adopted in 1948, still have an enduring and guiding role, although significant challenges to these protections remain. They require the ongoing attention of the international community.

Photo: Eleanor Roosevelt holds a copy of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (Everett Collection Historical/Alamy)

Kathryn McNeilly is Professor of Law, School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast, N. Ireland. This article was first published by The Conversation.

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