The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is 75 years old: Assessment and perspectives

Written by Dr. Florence Akano

December 10, 2023, marked the culmination of a year-long initiative that sought to celebrate and reaffirm the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a document that has served as a beacon of hope and a blueprint for fundamental freedoms since its proclamation on December 10, 1948, by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris.

Universal Values in a Changing World

As we reflect on the 75th anniversary of the UDHR, it is evident that human rights have become more recognized and guaranteed globally. The UDHR has laid the foundation for an expanding system of human rights protection that now encompasses vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and migrants.

However, the promise of the UDHR, advocating for dignity and equality in rights, has faced sustained assaults in recent years. The world grapples with new and ongoing challenges, from pandemics and conflicts to exploding inequalities, a morally bankrupt global financial system, racism, and the pressing threat of climate change. In the face of these challenges, the values and rights enshrined in the UDHR serve as guideposts for collective actions that strive not to leave anyone behind.

The year-long Human Rights 75 initiative has been instrumental in shifting the needle of understanding and action towards a greater awareness of the universality of the UDHR and the activism associated with it. The initiative, culminating in a high-level event in December 2023, has provided a platform for the global community to announce pledges and share ideas for a vision for the future of human rights.

UN Secretary-General’s Call for Commitment

On Monday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on world leaders to rely on the UDHR as a roadmap not only to uphold human rights but also to prevent wars, combat hatred, rebuild trust, and build a sustainable future for all. In a video message, Guterres highlighted the UDHR as presenting a “beacon of hope” for humanity and a blueprint for fundamental freedoms.

“As we celebrate this 75th anniversary, I call on every Member State to use this opportunity to strengthen their commitment to the values and principles of the Universal Declaration,” Guterres urged. “Let us strive to uphold and promote human rights, freedom, and equality – for all. Together, we can realize the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

A Two-Day Event in Geneva

The two-day high-level event in Geneva on December 11 and 12 featured key pledging sessions where nations announced tangible commitments to advance human rights protection. Segments entitled ‘Voices in Defence of Human Rights’ provided participants with the opportunity to share their testimonies and perspectives on the impact of the UDHR.

Panel discussions were held with experts examining challenges and considering the way forward on the universality and indivisibility of human rights, as well as how to strengthen the human rights system. A leaders’ segment with Heads of State took place on Tuesday, followed by round tables on pressing human rights issues, including peace and security, digital technologies, climate and the environment, and development and the economy.

Acknowledging Failures Amidst Progress

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk acknowledged the transformative societal progress that the UDHR has spurred globally over the past 75 years. However, Türk also highlighted numerous failures to uphold human rights, emphasizing thoughts for the millions suffering in various conflict zones worldwide.

My thoughts go to the millions of people suffering unbearably in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, notably Gaza and Israel; in Sudan; Ukraine; Myanmar; and so many other places,” Türk said. He acknowledged the diverse roots of the UDHR, drawing from reactions to the Holocaust, the Haitian revolution, African values of interdependence, cooperation, and collective responsibility, and the Islamic principle of zakat, or compassionate sharing.

The universality of the Declaration makes it a guide to solving the world’s most pressing challenges, Türk emphasized, and its 75th anniversary serves as a call to action to work together and base all decisions “on the intrinsic and equal value of every human life.

Commemorative Messages: A Thread That Weaves Us

In their respective commemorative messages for Human Rights Day, Dennis Francis, President of the UN General Assembly, and Paula Narváez, President of the Economic and Social Council, reiterated the importance of the UDHR. Francis wrote on social media, “Human rights are the thread that weaves us … as we proudly mark #HumanRights75, we reaffirm our unwavering commitment to the principles enshrined in it.”

Narváez invoked the words of Nelson Mandela, stating, “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” She urged collective action to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights for everyone, everywhere.

Human Rights Day: A Historical Reminder

Human Rights Day, observed annually on December 10, marks the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly. The Assembly proclaimed the landmark document as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations,” towards which individuals and societies should strive to secure universal and effective recognition and observance.

The UDHR sets out a broad range of fundamental rights and freedoms to which all individuals are entitled, regardless of nationality, place of residence, gender, national or ethnic origin, religion, language, or any other status. While not a binding document, the Declaration inspired more than 60 human rights instruments, constituting an international standard of human rights.

A Call for Continued Commitment

As we reflect on the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the challenges and successes of the past seven decades are highlighted. The year-long Human Rights 75 initiative and the high-level event in Geneva have provided a platform to renew commitments, share pledges, and chart a vision for the future of human rights.

While progress has been made, the enduring assaults on human rights globally emphasize the ongoing need for collective action. The words of the UDHR remain a timeless guide, urging us to strive for a world where human rights, freedom, and equality are not just celebrated on anniversaries but are the cornerstone of our daily actions. As we move beyond this significant milestone, the call for a sustained commitment to the principles of the UDHR echoes louder than ever.

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Dr. Florence Akano

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