70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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Local news, 10.12.2018

Ancient cultures have left us with countless encouragements to act responsibly as we see in the following Confucian quotation: “愛與敬,其政之本與 love and respect are the basis of governance”. Universal and individual rights however are quite recent, with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen issued in France in 1789 setting the stage for universal rights in modern history. The first truly comprehensive and global proclamation of human rights was established exactly 70 years ago with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

After the atrocities committed during World War II which had reduced numerous countries to ashes, the United Nations member states decided to come together to clearly state which rights needed to be guaranteed to individuals. Human Rights could no longer be considered an internal affair, rather they concern the international community as a whole. State sovereignty ends where people’s fundamental rights begin. 48 out of the 58 member states of the UN at the time voted in favor of the UDHR, amongst which was also China. Not only did China vote in favor of the Declaration, it also played a fundamental role in its drafting: Next to Eleanor Roosevelt, who was the chairperson of the drafting committee, was vice chairperson Dr. Peng Chun Chang who represented the Republic of China. Along with Charles Malik from Lebanon he is considered to be the philosophical leader of the drafting committee. His most important contribution was to make sure that the declaration was based not only on Western ideals, but that it included Chinese thought such as Confucian teachings. This further contributed to the universality of the UDHR. 

Although the UDHR is not legally binding in itself, many consider its content to be customary international law. Furthermore, it has served as a basis for the later adoption of human rights treaties. The Declaration establishes the principles of dignity, equality, liberty and brother- and sisterhood. It contains both individual rights such as the right to life, the right to freedom of expression and movement as well as collective rights like the freedom of religion, which in fact has both individual and collective aspects. These rights can today be found in the Constitutions of both China and Switzerland as well as almost all other states. 

Human rights are universal, inalienable, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. They protect all people, irrespective of their race, nationality, religion or membership of a specific social group. They are inherent to all human beings by virtue of their humanity alone. No one can lose or give away their human rights. There is no hierarchy between them and the protection of one right cannot be set aside in order to protect another. 

Whilst these principles seem very clear, their implementation has proved more than rocky. 70 years after the world has come together to make sure civilizational relapses that happened in the first half of the 20th century would not be repeated again, large-scale human rights violation is still a reality the world over. The UDHR gives us the vocabulary to verbalize human rights abuses. Over the past 70 years a set of treaties that protect human rights have been signed, such as ICESCR (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) and ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). Courts specializing in human rights and bodies overseeing them have been established. These mechanisms allow us to raise awareness about violations and call for their cessation as well as to identify the victims. 

It is crucial that multilateral initiatives like the human rights council are a place where human rights issues and violations can be openly and effectively addressed, without fear of repercussions for those doing so, may they be states or civil society representatives. The world is facing new challenges with conflicts and ethnic tensions on the rise, which makes it all the more important not to forget the values that have been enshrined in the UDHR 70 years ago. Terrorism, as vehemently as it needs to be opposed, cannot justify the undermining of human rights. This would go against their very nature of being universal and inalienable. We have to address today’s many challenges with strategies forged on the basis of human rights. Human rights are not a luxury whose implementation may be deferred to some distant future, rather they need to be constantly safeguarded as comprehensively as possible. 

While keeping the challenges in mind, much has also been achieved. Human rights are widely considered to be like second nature – an unconditional given just like the air we breathe. This is what the world set out to achieve 70 years ago. Human rights do not contain or weaken us, on the contrary, they empower us and surely count as a significant achievement for mankind!