Today, 10 December 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Developed as a universal standard setting out the rights to be enjoyed by everyone, the elaboration of the UDHR was one of the first actions undertaken by the newly established UN in carrying out its human rights mandate.
The UN Charter, forged after the ravages of the Second World War, places advancement of human rights as a core purpose and principle of the UN.
Over the past 70 years, the UN and regional human rights systems have taken the UDHR as the benchmark in developing the impressive normative architecture that constitutes the present day basis of international human rights law and standards.
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) was founded in 1952, only four years after the UDHR, with a mission to advance the rule of law and legal protection of human rights. Most of the international legal human framework at that time had still not yet been developed. The founding members of the ICJ believed that the lofty human rights principles enunciated in the UDHR needed to be transformed into hard and enforceable legal obligations incumbent on all States. From its founding, the ICJ worked to develop treaties and other standards aimed to make the enjoyment of human rights real for people, and not merely aspirational.
According to Sam Zarifi, Secretary General of the ICJ, “The ICJ’s biggest contribution to the international legal framework is still to bring together jurists from around the world to defend the rule of law and the universality of human rights at the global and local level.”
“Many now established global legal instruments have the fingerprints of the ICJ all over them. Crucial regional frameworks in the African, European, and American regions were developed with the deep and sustained involvement of the ICJ, as were the creation of the post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Criminal Court,” said Sam Zarifi.
The UDHR has not only inspired the work of human rights defenders, but has also been foundational for the general acceptance of the notion of human rights around the world.
From 1948 until the end of the twentieth century, there has generally been a continuous upward trajectory towards the advancement of human rights, even if there have been many pitfalls along the way.
The notion that people have rights is now universally accepted and known by people. At the Vienna Conference on Human Rights in 1993, all States of the world not only reaffirmed their commitment to the UDHR, but also agreed that “the universal nature of these rights and freedoms is beyond question.”
Over the years, there have certainly been major shortcomings in the push to achieve the realization of the human rights for all.
Some of the extreme examples include armed conflicts replete with crimes against humanity, war crimes and even genocide, followed by a failure to hold perpetrators accountable.
And there remains extreme poverty in parts of the world marked by a thorough neglect of economic and social rights.
Despite these shortfalls in implementation, it remains the case that human rights have been accepted as a key component in addressing humanity’s problems in the 70 years since the adoption of the UDHR.
“Over the years, more and more States have ratified human rights treaties, more States have incorporated human rights in their domestic law, and more courts have started to enforce human rights. At the grass roots law level, more organizations have demanded human rights as an entitlement and not just as an aspiration,” explains Ian Seiderman, Legal and Policy Director of the ICJ.
Despite, this long term trend in advancement of human rights, there are warning signs that progress is slowing and in some places has even reversed particularly in the past decade.
“We are now seeing a very strong pushback against human rights proclaimed in the UDHR from countries around the world,” says Ian Seiderman.
“Some of the pressures have come from the security angle, where even States that previously championed rights insist that rights protection must cede to security interest. More recently there has been a rise in populist authoritarian governments that don’t even pay lip service to human rights anymore. And many States have also turned their backs on the commitment to protect the most marginalized and vulnerable, such as refugees and migrants,” he adds.
Roberta Clarke, Chair of the ICJ Executive Committee:
At the normative level, there remains the notable gap in the international legal protection from transnational corporations and other business that abuse human rights and the reticence of many States to participate in good faith in the efforts at the UN to close this gap with a new business and human rights treaty.
This backlash has only redoubled the ICJ’s commitment to fight for the values originally imagined by the writers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The ICJ and its individual Commissioners remain heavily involved in the development of human rights standards and their implementation based on the UDHR and a part of the larger human rights movement.
The ICJ continues to work to adopt human rights law to changing conditions in the modern world, develops the human rights capacities of lawyers and judges in all parts of the world, undertakes legal advocacy internationally and in many countries, and provides legal tools for human rights practitioners.
Robert Goldman, ICJ President:
On the 70th anniversary of the UDHR, it is critically important to recall why the UDHR was established in the first place, especially in light of the current regression of human rights development around the world.
The preamble of the UDHR reminds us that “ disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.”
But more critically, it also insists that addressing these and other acts of inhuman rights require that human rights be protected by the rule of law.
This will be the ICJ’s continuing mission.
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