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UNIVERSAL IDEALS OP-ED

Universal Declaration of Human Rights — our common compass for achieving freedom, equality and justice for all

Universal Declaration of Human Rights — our common compass for achieving freedom, equality and justice for all

Given the many remaining challenges and the global pushback against human rights, on 11 December UN member states, civil society organisations, cities and local governments, human rights defenders, parliamentary representatives, United Nations entities, academics, experts, young people, sportspeople and artists will convene for the Human Rights 75 Geneva high-level event. Among the key moments will be two Pledging Sessions where states will announce their tangible commitments to advance human rights protection.

On 10 December 1948, member states at the United Nations General Assembly agreed on a groundbreaking global pledge: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). 

The landmark document, adopted as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”, enshrined the inalienable rights everyone is entitled to as a human being – without exception. In the aftermath of World War 2, this was undoubtedly a significant historical achievement and a milestone in human progress.

Among the 30 Articles of the Declaration, drafted by contributors from diverse countries and backgrounds, are universal ideals ranging from the most fundamental – the right to life – to those that make life worth living, such as the rights to education, work, healthcare and freedom of expression.  

Beginning with the non-negotiable principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”, the declaration underscores that human rights are inherent to every human being. It ends with the prohibition of any act that seeks to undermine, violate or impede any of the rights and freedoms contained in the declaration.

Around the world, human rights have become more recognised and guaranteed in the 75 years since the UDHR was adopted. Currently the most translated document in the world, in more than 500 languages, it has served as a blueprint for international, national and local laws and policies. The UDHR paved the way for the dismantling of colonial and apartheid regimes and helped to abolish discriminatory laws. It inspired movements for social justice and for the rights of women, children, people with disabilities, migrants and LGBTQI+ people. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 75 – time to move beyond the politics of a ‘bygone age’  

Even with these critical gains, human rights for all remains a work in progress. The past decade has not only seen challenges to human rights but in some instances, roll-backs. 

high school racism

Pretoria Girls High School pupils during protest against alleged racism and intimidation at the school on 29 August 2016. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Alon Skuy)

Challenges and roll-backs

Across the world, wars and conflicts are surging and intensifying, with devastating consequences. The Global Peace Index shows a deterioration in world peace for the ninth consecutive year.   

Inequality is rising and deepening, threatening the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal of ending extreme poverty. Southern Africa remains the epicentre of inequality, as eight of the 15 most unequal countries in the world are found in the region. 

There is pushback on women’s rights and gender equality even as one in three women globally has experienced sexual or gender-based violence. 

Dissenting voices are increasingly suppressed, threatening civic space. Human rights defenders, protesters and journalists are intimidated, tortured, detained and even killed.

Digital shifts, including artificial intelligence developments, are rapidly transforming our world, bringing new dimensions that require human rights considerations as an imperative to reach its potential benefits. 

Members of the ANC picket outside eNCA offices in Johannesburg during an anti-racism campaign on 2 March 2021. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo)

The planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution constitute the biggest threat to humanity and requires that states take ambitious adaptation and mitigation measures.

Amid these challenges, human rights must once again be placed at the centre of our collective solutions, as they were 75 years ago. They must be the common thread, running through all aspects of governance, economy, society and planet. 

Making human rights the centre of collective solutions

Given the many remaining challenges and the global pushback against human rights, member states, civil society organisations, cities and local governments, human rights defenders, parliamentary representatives, UN entities, academics, experts, young people, sportspeople and artists will convene for the Human Rights 75 Geneva High-Level event on 11 December. 

Among the key moments at the event will be two Pledging Sessions where states will announce their tangible commitments to advance human rights protection. 

About 150 protesters mainly students outside Cape High Court during the #RacistBanksMustFall march on 10 March 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Following a subregional consultation on Human Rights 75, earlier in November in Pretoria, southern African member states addressed the persistent forms of inequality in the region, among others. They proposed solutions which include adopting a human rights lens in the conceptualisation and implementation of policies and adopting a human rights-based approach to the economy. This would seek to increase social spending, invest in climate adaptation and place women, young people and persons with disability and other key populations at risk of being left behind at the centre of economic and social policies to ensure inclusive and meaningful participation.

The pledges by member states will culminate in a pledging tree, a visual representation of the concrete commitments to human rights and a reminder to move from ideals to action. 

As the declaration states plainly, a common understanding of rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance to the realisation of its pledge. This same common language of human rights continues to be our map, our compass and our guiding light towards peace, security and sustainable development. 

The 75th anniversary of the UDHR is an opportunity to rekindle hope and the spirit of the universality of rights that mobilises the world for common cause and sets us on the path towards a better future based on freedom, equality and justice for all. MC

Abigail Noko is the regional representative of the Regional Office of OHCHR in Southern Africa. She has worked at OHCHR for more than 20 years in various capacities. Before her current posting, she oversaw OHCHR’s work from headquarters in east and southern Africa and the African Union and undertook special assignments in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Previously she was special assistant to the assistant secretary-general for human rights, the adviser on HIV, and worked on external relations and donor relations. Before joining OHCHR, she worked with UNHCR and in the private sector.

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