Through the alchemy of distortion and untruth, some commentators would have us believe that “human rights” are the problem and not the people who actually order or commit torture and killings, not the people who sign death warrants after bogus trials or those that send in the riot police to truncheon peaceful demonstrators.
With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 60 years old this week (10 December) now is a good time to restate what human rights are actually about.
As laid out in the beguilingly simple yet elegant language of the UDHR, they are a “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”.
The right “to life, liberty and security of person” (article 3), to “a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal” (10), to “freedom of opinion and expression” (19) or to live life free from torture or other cruelty (5): the UDHR’s 30 ringing pronouncements savour of the American Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta. Like the NHS and other striking achievements of the post-war period, the UDHR arose from the ashes of the second world war, offering a vision, a blueprint, for a better world.
The UDHR was the first-ever comprehensive human rights statement from an international body and it lent legal form to the feeling that “never again” could the world go through the horrors of Europe’s death camps or the Far East’s POW camps, torture and killings. Given the context the UDHR’s visionary statement was all the more is a staggering an achievement. Piloted by a commission set up by the UN’s then 56 member states, its number (which included the tireless Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR’s widow, as chair) fashioned a broad consensus around civil and political rights as well as economic and social rights. There were abstentions (notably from the Soviet Union and South Africa) but no outright opposition, itself a remarkable outcome for the war-scarred world of 1948.
By gaining buy-in from virtually all countries, and via the transmission of its fundamental principles to groundbreaking international treaties (like the Convention Against Torture) as well as thousands of individual cases of people seeking redress for wrongs done to them, the UDHR’s influence has cascaded down the years since the late forties. Look at any major achievement and the UDHR has played its part. The cluster of momentous events a generation ago - the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the crumbling of apartheid - all owe something to the UDHR’s values of equality, inalienable dignity and justice. Indeed, every modern democracy struggle has its roots in the UDHR and every individual applicant seeking justice has taken heart from its principles.
But it has not prevented gross injustice, systematic persecution or genocidal slaughter. If only it could. Sometimes more acknowledged in the breach than the observance, dictators and tyrants from Harare to Rangoon are adept at sidestepping all international norms, sometimes for decades. But, as leaders like Pinochet, Suharto, Milosevic and Karadzic eventually found out, history has a habit of catching up with even the most powerful, and the UDHR has always aided that process.
After Cambodia’s killings fields, Bosnia’s ethnic cleansing and Rwanda’s descent into the maelstrom, on the one hand it’s extremely dispiriting that we’re still faced with conflict and suffering on the scale of Darfur and the Congo (not to mention the systematic subjugation of women or the grinding injustice of poverty, preventable ill-health and malnutrition around the globe).
But, on the other hand, the very fact that we grow angry at these gross human rights abuses and that we even have the vocabulary to voice our anger, is testimony to the UDHR’s force and influence.
Going forward, the UDHR is likely to become more relevant than ever. The principle of standing up for human rights, the notion that human rights abuses anywhere are the concern of people everywhere, is an immensely powerful and inspiring ideal for the twenty-first century. It’s one of the things that makes life worth living and reminds us why human rights are truly valuable and belong to all of us.
Amnesty International’s greetings card campaign (encouraging people to send messages of support to people at risk from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe) is at: www.amnesty.org.uk/gcc
Kate Allen is director of Amnesty International UK