How the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has shaped the world in 75 years

December 10, 2023, marked the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a historic document that laid the foundation for the recognition and protection of fundamental human rights worldwide. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948, the UDHR stands as a testament to the shared commitment to upholding the inalienable rights of every individual, irrespective of factors such as race, colour, religion, or political opinion.

The Universal Declaration at 75: A Global Pledge

In celebration of this significant milestone, a year-long initiative named “Human Rights 75” has been underway, focusing on universality, progress, and engagement. This initiative seeks to culminate in a high-level event in December 2023, where global pledges and ideas for the future of human rights will be announced. The theme for 2023, “Freedom, Equality, and Justice for All,” resonates with the ongoing struggle to ensure that the principles enshrined in the UDHR remain steadfast amid contemporary challenges.

The UDHR, available in over 500 languages, holds the distinction of being the most translated document globally. Its principles, emphasizing the inherent dignity and rights of all individuals, have become a common standard of achievement for people and nations across the world.

2023 Theme: Navigating Progress and Challenges

In the decades since the adoption of the UDHR, human rights have gained increased recognition and protection globally. The document has served as the bedrock for an expanding system of human rights, extending its reach to encompass vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and migrants. Despite this progress, the promise of the UDHR, advocating for dignity and equality in rights, has faced sustained challenges in recent years.

As the world grapples with issues ranging from pandemics and conflicts to escalating inequalities and the urgent need for environmental stewardship, the values and rights articulated in the UDHR provide crucial guideposts for collective action. The UDHR is more than a historical document; it is a living testament to our shared humanity, offering timeless guidance for navigating complex global challenges.

The Human Rights 75 Initiative: Shifting the Needle

The year-long Human Rights 75 initiative seeks to shift the needle of understanding and action towards greater awareness of the UDHR’s universality and its associated activism. From the right to education to equal pay, the UDHR established, for the first time, the indivisible and inalienable rights of all humanity. As a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations,” the UDHR serves as a global blueprint for international, national, and local laws and policies.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development explicitly recognizes that it is grounded in the UDHR and must be implemented to realise human rights. Over the past 75 years, the UDHR has inspired numerous struggles for stronger human rights protection and has played a crucial role in advancing the cause of rights and equality.

Standing Up for Human Rights

Human rights have undeniably advanced in the nearly 75 years since the proclamation of the UDHR. However, progress does not equate to the end of the fight for rights and equality. The challenges faced by the world today, from violations of rights to global crises, underscore the critical importance of human rights as a guiding framework.

The UDHR calls upon everyone to stand up for human rights, emphasizing that each individual has a role to play. It envisions an economy that invests in human rights and works for everyone, renewing the social contract between governments and their people to rebuild trust and embrace a shared and comprehensive vision of human rights on the road to just and sustainable development.

Human Rights Chief’s Call to Action

As the high-level event in Geneva approaches, UN Human Rights Chief Volker Türk emphasizes the timeliness of focusing on human rights. Türk states, “Now, more than ever, it is time for human rights,” setting the stage for a two-day event at Palais des Nations, the UN’s home in Geneva, Switzerland, and connected online to hubs in Addis Ababa, Bangkok, and Panama.

Heads of State and Government, civil society actors, human rights defenders, business leaders, sportspeople, artists, and economists will converge on the city to craft a vision for the future of human rights. This event represents the culmination of the year-long Human Rights 75 campaign, aiming to rejuvenate the spirit that led to the adoption of the UDHR by global consensus in 1948.

Reflecting on the Past 75 Years

Seventy-five years ago, representatives from diverse legal and cultural backgrounds across the world drafted the UDHR, recognizing the equal dignity and worth of every individual. The drafting of the UDHR was groundbreaking not only in its content but also in the involvement of women in shaping its language and the inclusion of certain social and cultural rights.

Throughout 2023, the UN Human Rights initiative has placed a spotlight on various human rights issues enshrined in the UDHR, necessitating urgent action from states and other duty-bearers. Monthly thematic focuses, national and regional dialogues, and a Push for Pledges have accompanied the initiative to encourage commitments toward tangible improvements in human rights.

In Türk’s message for Human Rights Day, he emphasizes that the UDHR is not just a historical document but a living testament to our shared humanity—a timeless guide that requires continual attention and dedication.

The Path Forward: Challenges and Commitments

While humanity has achieved significant progress in medicine, technology, the environment, social and political expression, economics, and labour laws over the past 75 years, Türk points out the world’s current challenges. Violent conflicts, deepening inequalities, discrimination, hate speech, impunity, growing divisions, polarization, and a climate emergency underscore the need for a deep reflection on human rights.

Türk stresses the need for collective action and the crafting of a vision for the future based on human rights. The UDHR provides a promise—that everyone is born equal in dignity and rights—and a blueprint for action. The high-level event in Geneva is a moment of deep reflection to seek common solutions centered on human rights.

Human Rights Day 2023: A Global Commemoration

On Human Rights Day, December 10, UN Human Rights will hold a concert featuring artists from around the world to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the UDHR. The High-Level Event in Geneva will occur from December 11-12, featuring key moments such as Pledging Sessions, where states will announce commitments to advance human rights protection.

Two segments entitled Voices in Defence of Human Rights will allow participants to share their testimonies and perspectives on the impact of the Universal Declaration. Panel discussions with experts will delve into challenges and the way forward on the universality and indivisibility of human rights, as well as how to strengthen the human rights system.

The Opening Ceremony of the Leaders’ Segment on December 12 will involve a discussion with Heads of State, followed by roundtables on pressing human rights issues, including peace and security, digital technologies, climate and the environment, and development and the economy.

Virtual Connectivity: Inclusivity and Accessibility

The Geneva High-Level Event will be accessible with international sign language interpretation, real-time captioning, and simultaneous interpretation in the six UN official languages. The event will also connect online to regional hubs in Bangkok, Nairobi, and Panama, where related discussions and events are being organized. A virtual human rights centre will enable up to 3,000 people to participate online, ensuring inclusivity and global engagement.

A Stark Reminder: Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory

Amidst the global commemoration, a statement by the United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Lynn Hastings, provides a stark reminder of ongoing human rights abuses. Hastings notes that while the 75th anniversary of the UDHR could have been a celebration, human rights are under assault in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Hastings highlights violations, including killings, sexual violence, and kidnappings, emphasizing the obligations of all parties under international law. The statement calls for accountability, humanitarian access, and a ceasefire to address the crisis.

In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, unprecedented levels of state and settler violence against Palestinians have been reported in 2023. Civil society organizations in Palestine and Israel, working tirelessly to protect human rights, are under attack.

A Call for Reflection and Action

As the commemoration of Human Rights Day 2023 unfolds, the world is presented with an opportunity to reflect on the progress made over the past 75 years and the challenges that persist. The UDHR remains a beacon of hope and a guide for navigating the complexities of our time.

In the face of escalating conflicts, deepening inequalities, and a climate emergency, the need to renew our commitment to human rights is more pressing than ever. The high-level event in Geneva and the global commemorations serve as a call to action—a reminder that the pursuit of peace, justice, and equality requires collective effort and an unwavering dedication to the principles articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Written by Olivier Noudjalbaye Dedingar, USA and UN Correspondent.

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Olivier Noudjalbaye Dedingar

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