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A year-long campaign will be launched today to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which falls on December 10, 2008. This campaign will engage the whole UN system in promoting the Declaration’s ideals and principles of justice and equality for all of us which changed the landscape of international relations and gave substance to the aspirations to freedom and dignity of humankind. But the celebrations are meant not only as tributes to an extraordinary human achievement. They will also be reminders that the goal of making the Declaration a living reality for everyone has yet to be realized.

There is no doubt that we have come a long way on a road that the UDHR framers have prefigured. Today, a complex web of international instruments has fleshed out the content of the baskets of rights that the Declaration spelled out, including civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. All States have ratified at least one of the core nine international human rights treaties, and 80 per cent have ratified four or more. The process of adopting the Declaration’s norms, translating them into law and putting them into effect is still ongoing at the international and national levels with regional entities increasingly involved as well.

Yet despite recognition in law and in stated commitments, glaring gaps in implementation of human rights standards are found in every country in the world. Abuse, discrimination and inequality are still pervasive. They may even be growing as a result of new forms of oppression, violence and economic and social inequalities.

Nothing exemplifies unmet expectations better than the failure to grant justice to the victims of discrimination and human rights violations. Many judicial systems lack professionalism or have a long history of intimidation and subservience which prevents accountability for perpetrators’ actions and denies their victims proper recourse. Impunity, and the absence of a true connective tissue between state institutions and the citizenry not only frustrates the demand for justice, but also encourages the perpetuation of patterns of exclusion and abuse.

Such profound, widespread and recurrent challenges have prompted some to question the vitality, relevance, and applicability of the Declaration’s principles. However it is not the soundness of the Declarations’ vision, but the commitment of governments to implementing its norms and their management of competing aspirations and scarce resources that should come under scrutiny. Clearly, legitimate, independent, and effective institutions of governance are necessary to meet the human rights requirements of justice, effective participation and genuine accountability. Viable institutions also ensure that that social justice, including equal access to food, education, health, proper housing, and other basic needs, is delivered in an effort to free people from conditions of chronic poverty and discrimination.

Another form of criticism has targeted the very concept of universality on which the Declaration rests. This criticism has been expressed by many in the mistaken belief that universal principles are inimical to the promotion of pluralistic diversity or cultural specificity, or free enterprise. Some sceptics argue that civil and political rights—as articulated in the Declaration—belong solely to western traditions and agendas, and are not as widely shared as their advocates believe. For their part, critics coming from liberal economic perspectives are wary of the Declaration’s economic and social rights which they regard as either hampering free market practices, or imposing too cumbersome obligations on States or both. Finally, some have espoused rejectionist positions and recast them into self-serving doctrines to simply preserve privileges and power uniquely for themselves and a selected few, while denying the rights of everyone else.

Far from suffocating pluralism and equally far from being a partisan concoction--suitable to some cultures, but irrelevant or even harmful to others--the Declaration was the product of the considered judgment of an inspired group of framers who came from diverse backgrounds and regions and who drew from a wide spectrum of legal, religious, and political traditions. They sought a “common standard of achievement” for all to share. The balance they attained sixty years ago is an equilibrium we should never cease to strive for, irrespective of how our approaches may vary.

As we seek to advance this area of agreement, States and all stakeholders should concentrate instead on how to remove the obstacles that continue to hamper the implementation and fulfilment of all human rights standards.

Realizing the goals of justice and equality for all must be our pre-eminent task if we truly are to honour the spirit and the letter of the Declaration. Beyond good intent, this endeavour must be understood and carried out as a genuine responsibility to empower rights holders. It must be pursued with the urgency and sense of priority that it deserves as our shared obligation to promote and protect human rights under the law.

This op-ed was published by the following newspapers, among others:
The Buenos Aires Herald (Argentina)
Le Monde (France)
El Universal (Mexico)