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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: a guiding framework for humankind in uncertain times

At a time when the world mourns its dead and faces the exacerbated instability and poverty resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic; when it confronts legacies of colonialism, systematic racism and discrimination; and when it sees in shores, forests, and skies everywhere the impact of climate change; we, the Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups that comprise the Special Procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council, underscore the centrality of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the international human rights protection system. We are convinced that this document remains as relevant today as it was at its adoption by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, as the framework to guide States in promoting, protecting and fulfilling human rights for all people during these uncertain times.

When the Universal Declaration was adopted, its visionary drafters reaffirmed the world’s faith in “fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women”, determined to “promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom”. At that time, the world was coming to terms with the aftermath of preceding wars and unspeakable human atrocity and cruelty, which reminds us that those principles are the cornerstone of collective response to great existential threats faced by humanity.

This past year has presented unprecedented challenges. In order to address them, we have raised our voices in applying a precautionary human rights-based approach to all areas including the pandemic, racism, violence and climate change, and we have called upon governments, communities, businesses, individuals and all stakeholders to uphold the universal, indivisible and interdependent human rights of all.

We have underlined that, to be effective, responses to these challenges require that people’s participation and trust, the contributions of human rights defenders and civil society, and the emerging technologies must all be put at the service of the task of mitigating, adapting and transforming the devastating effects of these challenges.

We have identified the equality of human beings in dignity and in rights as fundamental to the success of the public health response and building back better from the pandemic, as efforts continue to develop and distribute a vaccine for the benefit of all people. We have called attention to the structural, institutional and societal dimensions of racism that continue to result in police brutality and discrimination against minorities, indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees and stateless persons; and the fuelling of conflict, ethnic and religious hatred, and all forms of intolerance that destroy lives.

We have expressed concern at the violation of the rights of minorities, including national, ethnic, religious and linguistic, who remain vulnerable but are further targeted and victimised during times of crises. Gender-based violence against women and girls and violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity have been exacerbated during the pandemic. Conflict and poverty have impacted the ability of persons, communities and populations historically subjected to discrimination to face the consequences of pandemic response and recovery measures. Nobody, and no sector of life or State delivery has been spared. These realities have motivated countless interventions by Special Procedures highlighting the facts, underlining the core principles of human dignity and human rights, and advising States on how effective measures can be designed to be free from violence and discrimination.

We have also stood for communities and individuals affected by unpredictable weather patterns, devastating floods, fires and heatwaves, and food shortages caused by climate change, calling upon governments to ensure that all of its citizens are empowered to participate in finding solutions and in holding their leaders accountable for real and urgent action.

Through all our actions, we have endeavoured to make the human rights system responsive and innovative in confronting human rights challenges and demonstrated that human rights are transformative, provide solutions, and speak directly to each and every individual, as reaffirmed in the Call to Action for Human Rights issued by the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 72 years ago, the Declaration continues to resonate ever closely with the aspirations, values, human needs and human rights of today. The breadth of rights covered by the Declaration, including civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights and importantly the rights to development, peace and security are inextricably linked to those foundational elements that we now identify as the foundation for Building Back Better.

2020 will be a year that must be remembered by humankind for the unique existential challenges that it brought with it. As we commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the closing days of the year also serve an important and powerful message: the global threats to humanity demand global responses that rest on multilateralism, cooperation, and solidarity.

We end on a note of hope and optimism that the ideals of legal order, social justice, equality and democracy enshrined within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would continue to direct our future strategies for framing human rights and their implementation, and that the challenges presented this year would be confronted through unified and coherent responses.