Allison Joyce/UN Women

World News


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70

Seventy years ago, on December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady of the United States of America, led a Commission on Human Rights to draft a bill of the fundamental rights and freedoms proclaimed in the UN Charter. Human rights are the rights of all human beings which include the right to life and freedom, the right to work, and education. The UDHR has become very popular since its creation. According to the Guinness World Records, the UDHR is the second most translated document and has been translated into 370 languages only surpassed by the Bible, which is translated into more than 500 languages. However, it does not necessarily mean that people are guaranteed their human rights.

In spite of its popularity, the universality of the UDHR is far from perfect, and certainly there are issues regarding the enforcement of such rights. Due to a lack of enforcement mechanisms, there are still authoritarian regimes and governments that violate human rights. Hence, the UDHR’s main role is to create a normative basis and common ground of the existence of human rights. If Eleanor Roosevelt knew what the UDHR would become, not a strong treaty which created accountability and precision, would she have written it differently?

So, what has changed since the UDHR in 1948? Since its creation, there have been many human rights treaties. Unfortunately, they have not been effective in making particular human rights universal and tenable. Today, there are millions of people deprived of their human rights. According to the latest UNICEF report, 155 million children under the age of five are suffering from stunted growth which affects their bodies and minds. This is a violation of UDHR Article 26. In 2016, the UNHCR reported that more than 65 million people around the world have been forced from their homes. This is a violation of UDHR Article 14. Among them, there are nearly 22 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18, which is a violation of UDHR Article 7 and Article 17.

The last report from the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that hunger is on the rise again, affecting more than 800 million people in 2016. In addition, 11% of the global population does not have enough food to lead a healthy and active life which is a violation of UDHR Article 25. The World Food Programme assists 80 million people across 80 countries each year. If people are starving, being displaced, and not healthy enough to work, who is to blame? If human rights are universal, isn’t everyone accountable? Why do governments abuse their citizens, why do they not correct injustices, why do they prevent International Organizations from upholding these universal human rights?

On top of the human rights violations mentioned above, it is important to note that some of the 150 UN members that signed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide are involved in the very mass crimes against humanity they have ostensibly declared to prevent. According to the Global Conflict Tracker, there are many ongoing conflicts that have resulted in large numbers of casualties and human rights abuses: Arab-Israeli Conflict (1920 – ongoing), North Korea (mid 1990s – ongoing), Democratic Republic of the Congo (1997 – ongoing), Afghanistan (2012 – ongoing), Darfur (2003 – ongoing), Yemen (2011 – ongoing), Syria (2011 – ongoing), South Sudan (2013 – ongoing), and Myanmar (2016 – ongoing). The United Nations and its members have not been able to halt or to prevent these mass crimes against humanity. There are old conflicts that still need resolution, and there are new conflicts erupting from all corners of the globe.

Why are human rights treaties such as the UDHR ineffective in stopping these crimes? The simple answer is this – human rights treaties are not legally binding. Governments have no incentives to comply, and cooperation is merely optional. Furthermore, the international organizations that create these treaties do not have the mechanisms to control, enforce, nor punish their members. Human rights treaties have the status of customary international law which serves as a set of international law practices of governments creating a legal obligation.

The international human rights regime also lacks enforcement machinery. Governments, through sovereignty, are the primary actors that have the means and the ends to guarantee and safeguard the rights of their societies. They create and control institutions that can promote human rights and have the responsibility to care for their people. Governments are capable of punishing those who violate human rights. As we have seen in many cases, it is not in the governments’ best interests to comply with the UDHR. Besides, the UDHR also lacks the specificity of who carries the responsibility and duties of complying with human rights laws. Therefore, governments rely upon and share their responsibilities with nonprofit organizations and civil society to accomplish their duties. One way in which to incentivize governments to conform to the international human right regime is to partner up with International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. By providing International financial institutions with reports on human rights abuses, the IMF and the World Bank could withhold assistance to countries that violate human rights. Governments may then be incentivized to comply with human rights.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been playing a pivotal role in furthering the goals of the UDHR, suggesting where governments can play a more productive role in protecting the rights of individuals through knowledge diffusion. These NGOs are filling the gap that has long been neglected by governments by promoting, ensuring, and protecting human rights. Furthermore, human rights organizations have been very competent in investigating, collecting, and exchanging data on human rights violations around the world. By virtue of their work, NGOs have leverage on human rights issues and they can pressure the governments to act when there are violations of human rights, the so-called “name and shame” principle. Unfortunately, these organizations have limited resources and often face hostile environments in the countries where they operate. However, NGOs are a key pillar in the quasi-enforcement mechanism of the international human rights regime.

In the world we live in, human rights are a matter of life and death. NGOs, civil society, and the global community consider the UDHR, despite its limitations, as the main pillar of human rights norms that has the potential to bring respect and dignity to the world, peace, and security and prevent conflicts from occurring. We must fight becoming disillusioned by repeated violations by its signatories, and recognize the UDHR as our starting point for an overarching international system that is the path to a more just and peaceful world.