Sixty Years Of The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights
This week, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns sixty. There is much to celebrate, but progress on the realisation of rights has been extremely slow.
By Kathambi Kinoti
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was signed on December 10, 1948. Three years earlier, the United Nations (UN) had been formed. Its members were keen that the world should never again see the widespread destruction and trauma that the Second World War had brought. The predecessor to the UN Human Rights Council, the Commission for Human Rights, drafted the UDHR. Its chair (then still referred to as the Chairman) was a woman; Eleanor Roosevelt. She steered the Commission through the lengthy process of deciding which rights should be articulated in the UDHR.
Today, the UDHR is almost universally accepted as the basic human rights standard, although some – particularly traditionally capitalist – nations are not too keen on being bound to fulfil economic, cultural and social rights such as the right to decent work, housing, or a reasonable standard of living. Often, women experience disproportionate violations of these very rights.
Deficit of commitment
Whether motivated by real commitment, political expediency, or the need to look good, states readily sign on to human rights conventions. Practice is another matter altogether. At the time the UDHR was adopted, Great Britain and France were colonial oppressors. South Africa, another UN member state adopted apartheid in the same year that the UDHR was adopted.
Sixty years on, state oppression is not history. States and their agents continue to commit gross violations of human rights. In China, freedom of expression is severely restricted. Human rights defenders all over the world face arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, torture and death. Within and outside its borders, the United States government captures people it accuses of being terrorists and subjects them to torture.
States actively violate rights, but they also passively allow rights infringements to continue. This is why discrimination against women, honour killings, female genital mutilation, rape and other atrocities continue to be commonplace.
The UDHR was formulated on the assumption that states bear the primary duty of ensuring that human rights are protected, and there is also usually a tacit assumption in its interpretation that it is states that violate human rights. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of whose basis is the UDHR, bind states to protect – if not fulfil, the rights enshrined in the UDHR. While it is certainly true that they do commit human rights violations, since the UDHR was adopted, the world has changed a lot.
States are no longer the only powerful rights violators. Most present-day conflicts involve non-state actors who challenge the power of states, and are out of the reach of their justice systems. The scale of atrocities that the Lords Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, for instance, perpetrates was not anticipated by the UDHR. Apart from causing widespread displacement, non-state militia are responsible for a range of horrific violations: rape, mutilations, slavery and killings. With the exception of killings, in most cases it is women and girls who are targeted. Although international criminal jurisprudence has brought individuals within its ambit, there is a real difficulty in trying to capture and prosecute such people.
The rise of powerful multinational corporations (MNCs) is another phenomenon that was not anticipated in 1948 when the UDHR came into being. MNCs like those exploiting the mineral wealth of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the oil wealth of Colombia are to blame for a litany of abuses. Around the world, MNCs routinely violate the rights of poor people in a number of ways from child labour to infringement of intellectual property rights to torture and even death.
Equal rights for all are enshrined in the UDHR, but it has been a struggle to end discrimination against disadvantaged groups. It took 45 years for it to be affirmed at the UN Human Conference in Vienna that indeed, women’s rights are human rights.
An all-female group of representatives of fifteen governments constituted the first session of the Commission on the Status of Women in 1947. It was not until three decades later, that states agreed that it was not enough to recognise that women and men are equal; barriers to women’s progress had to be eliminated. Again, states have not been in any hurry to ensure progress on this front, even after they adopted of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination.
Sixty two years ago, at the inaugural UN General Assembly meetings, Mrs Roosevelt made a call for ‘the Governments of the world to encourage women everywhere to take a more active part in national and international affairs,’ and for ‘women who are conscious of their opportunities to come forward and share in the work of peace and reconstruction as they did in war and resistance.’ We still hear similar calls today; progress has been extremely slow.
Roosevelt, Eleanor ‘The Promise of Human Rights.’ From Foreign Affairs 26 (April 1948) 470-477. http://www.udhr.org/history/113.htm
Short History on the Commission on the Status of Women. http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/CSW60YRS/CSWbriefhistory.pdf