The resilience and relevance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after 70 Years in a time of closing borders and closing civic space
Human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent.
At a time when the world marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and at time when human rights and the foundations of the human rights protection system are under serious threats, we, the independent Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups that comprise the Special Procedures* of the United Nations Human Rights Council take this occasion to underscore the centrality of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the international human rights protection system. We affirm further that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the cornerstone of the respect for social, economic, cultural, civil and political rights guaranteed to every individual and all peoples “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” in the pursuit of peace, security and sustainable development for all humanity.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the backbone of the international human rights system, came into being in 1948, just three years after the end of World War II. At that time, the visionary leaders of the world had the foresight to see that mankind needed an enduring commitment to the protection of human dignity, lest the world go back to the human destruction of the preceding wars which the UN had committed itself to avoid.
Following the adoption of the Universal Declaration, the world witnessed an exponential development of international human rights standards that elaborated the protection regimes of individuals and peoples all over the world. Yet today we are witnessing wars, conflicts and violations of human dignity daily in different parts of the world. Respect for human rights at times has been honored more through lip service than on the ground. Some States and political leaders have engaged in wanton and egregious violations of human rights. Recent memory is replete with multiple examples of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Impunity reigns supreme in many countries undergoing conflicts or political upheavals, encouraged by narrow national objectives, geopolitics and political impasse at the United Nations Security Council.
The recent upsurge of forced migration which resulted from the various conflicts, economic mismanagement, poverty, oppression and violence, have precipitated an upsurge of nationalism and xenophobia in countries of asylum, which is reversing the gains of international humanitarian cooperation of the last 70 years. We face grand challenges in the face of mass migration and displacement of people globally. Nations are closing their borders from foreign victims of oppression and conflict. Within States civic space is shrinking against the exercise of fundamental freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Many States do not treat all peoples with the same dignity and equality embodied in the Universal Declaration. Today the world remains a place where conflict, instability and inequality are increasingly becoming the order of the day.
The impact of climate change leads to adverse human rights impacts on people worldwide, from food scarcity, to shrinking land masses. We see minority and other groups disenfranchised and excluded from public participation. Human rights defenders are often prosecuted and arrested when seeking to stand up for the rights of these groups. Many of them, including women human rights defenders, have lost their lives, or are demonized, in the pursuit of human rights for all.
While the international human rights system has come under increasing pressure, it still continues to show great resilience to withstand the numerous challenges and to help guide nations and people towards sustainable development and peace.
Today we celebrate the resilience of the human rights system and the contributions that the Universal Declaration has made to advancing human progress, peace and development globally. Over the last 70 years human rights have become an integral part of the duties governments owe towards their people. Women’s political participation and representation has increased significantly. The protection provided by the international human rights system has increased including by addressing new and emerging human rights issues and demonstrating its capacity to evolve and respond to people’s needs and expectations.
We have quicker and easier access to more information regarding best practices, as well as cases of grave violations of human rights thanks to both technological advancement and promotion of rights to access that information and data. Transparency helps individuals to shine a light on international human rights violations, and provides for meaningful reporting on State practices. Nations are stepping forward to combat slavery and human trafficking. These are only a few examples of how far we have come through ambition, cooperation and global commitment to human rights.
The Sustainable Development Goals also embody the empowering nature of human rights. With the goal of leaving no one behind, the emphasis on providing safe water, quality education, healthcare and peaceful communities are examples of how human rights enable human dignity and human development. As the Sustainable Development Goals demonstrate, human rights are interconnected and indivisible. In order to leave no one behind, we need to embrace a holistic view of development that embraces rights.
The Sustainable Development Goals also remind us of a key concept in the Universal Declaration - that rights must apply equally to all people including those in vulnerable situations. The principles of equality, non-discrimination and meaningful participation ensure that rights are for all people.
Human rights remain central to both sustainable development as well as to sustaining peace and security. It is the inclusion of all people, the promotion of the dignity and capability of all humanity that allows us to promote sustainable peace. The Universal Declaration was born out of conflict and framed to perpetuate lasting peace. It is important to reflect on the resilience of that message, and the need for every person to recommit to the Universal Declaration for another 70 years.
As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, we, the Independent Experts, Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups of the United Nations Human Rights Council, commit ourselves to continue promoting the values, principles and standards enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the entire body of international human rights instruments, and urge the international community to join us in this noble objective.