Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 75 – time to move beyond the politics of a ‘bygone age’
Just like Jamaica and other states began to make human rights an integral part of détente when faced with the threat of nuclear disaster during the 1960s, we should consider returning to human rights as part of a global détente to mobilise a divided and self-harming global community to stop needless disputes, and instead act in ways that can seriously begin to ensure truly committed and coordinated action to prevent and mitigate the escalating effects of climate and inequalities breakdown.
Our world is on the brink.
Climate crisis. Biodiversity crisis. Pandemic crisis. Inequality crisis. Renewed threats of nuclear warfare. Protracted humanitarian crisis. Corruption crisis. Forever wars. We barely need to exemplify this reality. We know we are on the brink. We feel it. We live it – even if the impacts are unevenly distributed, like so much else in the world.
It may seem like an awkward time to commemorate and celebrate a 75-year-old declaration, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Nevertheless, there are a lot of reasons to do exactly this.
One reason is that we are not the only age or generation who have had to manage life on the brink of disaster. Previous generations have faced a similar reality. Part of their response to what appeared as insurmountable challenges was an emphasis on human rights.
This is the case for the generations that emerged from the ashes – quite literally ashes – of World War 2. As the scholar of religion Jenna Reinbold beautifully argues in her 2017 book, “Seeing the Myth in Human Rights”, there was a deeper narrative structure at play in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“The framers of the Declaration aspired to create a narrative with the power to transition its global audience from an epoch of, as the Preamble puts it, ‘barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind’ to an epoch of ‘freedom, justice and peace in the world’. In doing so they [the drafters] endeavoured to do what mythmakers have aspired to do for millennia: to narrate into existence a world that is less capricious, less cruel, and more humane than it frequently appears to be.”
The Universal Declaration was a remarkable intellectual, moral and political achievement as well as a unique form of human storytelling that, in its own way, combined a grand vision with a survival strategy.
It was also the beginning of a larger global story about the post-1945 world and a vision of internationalism informed by human rights.
It would not be unfair to say that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights operated on a slow burn after its adoption on 10 December 1948. Surely that was the case throughout the 1950s.
However, during the early 1960s, things started to change. This was during a moment in history when the international community was again aware of living on the brink, namely with the realistic threat of nuclear war and disaster hanging over people’s heads.
The year 1962 proved to be a turning point for human rights internationally.
The leading role of Jamaica
It happened in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The world was on alert. The risk scenarios were dramatic. High-level diplomacy was operating through hotlines and back channels. Enter here: a Caribbean island state only 144km from the epicentre of the global nuclear weapons crisis, namely Jamaica.
Jamaica entered the United Nations shortly after its independence in August 1962. In its maiden speech to the UN General Assembly in October 1962, the country re-established human rights on the international agenda.
It came through a critique of political neglect, a vision for a better world and the direction that had to be taken, and a strategic reading of international affairs at a time when the world was on the brink of nuclear war.
The Jamaican government elaborated on this later point in their next speech to the UN General Assembly in 1963 when stating:
“Often in the history of nations and civilisations a whole generation lives out its little life by the rules and standards of a bygone age, oblivious of the fact that the current of history and the march of ideas have passed it by. Let it not be said that in this generation one nation continued to dispute with the other about areas of national sovereignty, about means of protecting national security, ignorant of the fact that the hydrogen bomb has eliminated the resort to force as a means of settling international disagreements.”
That global outlook reflected the mindset that underpinned Jamaica’s stated ambition to work for an international legal order with human rights as a key element – an ambition they pursued and for which they became the global leader at the United Nations for the remainder of the 1960s, with some remarkable and undervalued successes achieved in the process.
However, that quote from 60 years ago is also a description of us today. Our global politics is living out its life by the standards of a bygone age. The current of history has passed or is passing us by.
Many of the dominant ideas and behaviours that have shaped national and international politics – and the exercise of power in these contexts – remain ignorant to the fact that the climate crisis has eliminated the resort to war, corruption, widening global inequalities, indifference in the face of pandemics as tolerable political means on a heating, burning and over-flooding planet where natural disasters are increasingly rife.
Just like Jamaica and other states began to make human rights an integral part of détente when faced with the threat of nuclear disaster during the 1960s, we should consider returning to human rights as part of a global détente to mobilise a divided and self-harming global community to stop needless disputes and instead act in ways that can seriously begin to ensure truly committed and coordinated action to prevent and mitigate the escalating effects of climate and inequalities breakdown.
That is an ambition and a half right there.
We urgently need to move beyond the politics of our own bygone age.
This has, however, to be done with some key values intact. Enter human rights again. Let us therefore look in closer detail at the political vision and global project that Jamaica initiated back in 1962 to potentially learn some lessons for an international human rights strategy of today.
Political vision for a global project
First, in their inaugural speech to the United Nations in October 1962, Jamaica called for “a worldwide human rights campaign”. This endeavour had a clear political aim. It should work towards “the end that the total world would be concerned with the total world”.
Universality was key from the outset.
Second, the campaign mobilised the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a novel way. The campaign would culminate with an international human rights year held in 1968, thereby coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the Universal Declaration. This turned the legacy of the Declaration into a political target for international action.
The intention was to use the period from 1962 to 1968 to complete the unfinished human rights legal projects, establish a system of monitoring mechanisms, and mobilise new ideas and initiatives to be completed by the 20th anniversary when these efforts would be evaluated and a new programme of action post-1968 would be developed.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was thereby awarded a not insignificant role in the reconstruction of global values that took place during the 1960s.
It was made into a target to assist the international community to move away from the brink of nuclear war which was the starting point at the beginning of the decade.
Third, Jamaica developed a powerful narrative of moving away from the failed politics of the past and present to pave the way for a new politics fit for a new era and generation – as witnessed from the above-mentioned quote.
Fourth, Jamaica developed in 1964 the first foreign policy strategy that integrated human rights into such a document.
Human rights were placed in direct connection with two other global priorities, namely, advancing peacekeeping, and reform of international aid and trade.
The human rights vision made clear that the prevention of war and investment in peacekeeping was critical to ensure a system of collective security based on a legal order.
Human rights also required reforming international arrangements around trade and development aid linking human rights directly to how the international economy was organised in order to tackle “the ills of poverty, starvation and disease”.
Fifth, from 1962 to 1968, Jamaica directly took on the human rights resistance by the two superpowers – the Soviet Union and the United States – and charged a course in international diplomacy that focused on developing human rights accountability mechanisms at national, regional and international levels, elevating human rights inside the UN’s institutional structures, expanding the project to ensure greater engagement of civil society worldwide and advancing legal techniques that could monitor violations and counter the widespread appetite for war-making as a political tool or a strategy for wider domination.
Sixth, the 20th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1968 proved a culmination where it was clear that considerable achievements had been made in the human rights field while the seeds of new beginnings were also sown throughout the year (such as Amnesty International integrating torture into its mandate, inspired by the Jamaican international human rights year initiative).
The mobilising potential of the Universal Declaration had proved its worth. It reflected an agenda for political transition comparable to that of the drafters from 1948.
It was also a year where the international community faced a new set of political crises and challenges with wars and violent conflicts in Vietnam, Biafra, across southern Africa, and with the aftermath of the June 1967 war in the Middle East that had begun to weigh heavily on the renewed international human rights project, undermining its momentum in the process.
These developments would spark a new sense of international crisis as the world entered the 1970s. This led everyone to overlook what had been built and what had been achieved through the strategic clarity, alliance building, diplomatic skills and determination of a small Caribbean nation that had guided the international community away from the brink of one pending disaster to survive into another era.
Drawing the lessons
We can draw lessons from this global process for our own age.
The step-by-step approach that the Jamaicans developed can inform how we organise ourselves today and think about human rights strategising both internationally and nationally.
The start-up vision from 1962 that “the total world would be concerned with the total world” is as relevant today as it was back then. This is the political value that we should nurture and that we should expect – even demand – from political leaders and the states that are the key actors in the multilateral system.
We can also draw a lesson about the untapped – and still unexplored – potentials of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international human rights project that it birthed 75 years ago this month.
It is time to begin exploring this potential and define this work again.
We need a new transformative international politics that can help us survive into a new epoch. This is the renewed role for human rights in the future. It is human rights as grand strategy version 21st century.
There is still a path back from the brink. We just need to learn to live out our little lives by the rules and standards of a new age.
P.S. It should be mentioned that a seventh component of the Jamaican human rights strategy can rightfully be added: Enter Bob Marley and the Wailers emerging from Trench Town, writing the soundtrack to the international human rights movement from the 1970s and forward: Get up, Stand up! DM
Steven L. B. Jensen is a prize-winning human rights historian. He is the author of The Making of International Human Rights. The 1960s, Decolonization and the Reconstruction of Global Values (Cambridge UP 2016) and editor of Social Rights and the Politics of Obligation in History (Cambridge UP 2022). He holds a PhD in History and is a Senior Researcher at The Danish Institute for Human Rights. He is a regular contributor to Open Global Rights. He is currently working on a history of social and economic human rights in 20th-century international politics.