On this day 75 years ago, on 10 December 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” Forty-eight of the 58 countries eligible voted to approve the Declaration. The Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, South Africa, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia abstained, while Honduras and Yemen absented themselves from the vote altogether. There were no votes against its adoption.
The previous day, on 9 December 1948, they had adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and just three and a half years earlier, in June 1945, 50 countries had signed the Charter of the United Nations establishing the foundations for a new global order at the end of a profoundly ruinous war. In the three years separating the adoption of the UN Charter from the Universal Declaration, more countries emerged to independence, including Korea, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Myanmar, Pakistan, Syria, and Vietnam. In the decade that followed, the cascade of decolonisation arrived Africa.
Two significant events in May 1948 preceded the adoption of the Universal Declaration. In Bogota, Colombia, the countries of the Organisation of American States (OAS) proclaimed the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, according human rights salience on a regional scale that had until then been absent. In the same month, the National Party eked out a win in South Africa’s parliamentary elections, enabling them to take over power and launch a government founded on the idea of the inherent supremacy of one race over all others, which many around the world thought had been defeated with the Nazis in 1945. It was entirely consistent that a country led by such a party could not bring itself to vote for the Universal Declaration.
Like the Genocide Convention, the Universal Declaration was inspired by Nazi atrocities which, in the explicit language of the text “outraged the conscience of the world.” It would have been preferable if that conscience could also have been bothered to notice the preceding atrocities of colonialism and slavery or the genocides at the beginning of the 20th century, including those perpetrated by Germany against the Herero and Namaqua of present day Namibia; King Leopold’s genocide in the Congo; and the Ottoman genocide against the Armenians. Those went un-noticed largely because the victims were – in the dominant wisdom of the day – from expendable races.
Much of what the Declaration promised was aspirational then. Around the world, discrimination was the order of the day. Many of the leading countries at the adoption of the Declaration, notably France, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom, were still reluctant to give up their colonies. They could not be taken seriously when they promised not to discriminate because colonialism was founded on an inherent inferiority of colonised peoples. This inequality was racist. A mere quarter of a century earlier, these nations had described colonies in the Covenant of the League of Nations as “inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.”
Despite the adoption of the Slavery Convention in 1926, slavery was also still alive at the time. Therefore, simple as it was, the proposition that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” was quite radical in 1948. The original draft had confined that entitlement only to men. Hansa Mehta, the feminist educator and writer who was India’s first representative to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, ensured that the final language of the Declaration applied to everyone, not just men. Her imprint on the final text showed that decolonisation would profoundly affect the manners and meanings of international law and relations.
Four days after its adoption, the Guardian in London editorialised that the Declaration “is no smug statement of the Western way of life”, calling it “a bold step for the world to take when there is no government in existence which can guarantee, even to its more favourite citizens, all the rights laid down.” On the first proposal, the newspaper was far from accurate; on the second, its insight proved far more durable.
With respect to the former, Kathryn Sikkink recalls that it was the Chilean jurist and diplomat, Álejandro Alvarez, who first proposed the idea of the “international rights of the individual” to the American Institute of International Law in 1917, which eventually evolved into the UDHR. The caricature of the Universal Declaration as some kind of donation by the West to the rest is, therefore, easily shown to be unfounded.
As to the latter, its evident shortcomings notwithstanding, the influence of the Declaration has been seminal. Many of the ideas originally formulated as aspirations in the Declaration have been transformed into binding law domestically and internationally. All the current 193 member-states of the United Nations profess fidelity to it with varying degrees of conviction and many have it enshrined by reference in their national constitutions. Its claims to being universal, somewhat ostentatious 75 years ago, are closer to reality today.
The Declaration has inspired a complex of international treaties and mechanisms at global and regional levels patented for the protection of human rights. Courts of human rights exist in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. The 22 countries of the Arab League now have in place an agreement to create one. An active community of advocates around the world toils to ensure that the guarantees inspired by the Universal Declaration continue to prosper. It has spawned a grammar appealing to diplomacy, government at different levels and even to security and intelligence agencies as they seek to communicate or justify their actions.
At the landmark of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the evidence of progress is unmistakable, but so are the challenges. The rise of populist authoritarianism increasingly endangers the promise of the Declaration and those who work to defend or realise that promise as well as the integrity of institutions for its implementation nationally and internationally. In Europe, the United Kingdom is increasingly voluble with its sovereign scepticism about the European Convention on Human Rights. In many parts of the world, violent non-state actors such as insurgents, terror groups, or networks of organised crime now endanger the mission of the Universal Declaration.
In a world of permanent crises, the political and diplomatic investments needed to advance human rights are increasingly in doubt, nowhere more so than in the West, as countries as well as multilateral institutions direct their attentions to a succession of pressing crises or foster the idea that the advancement of a more equal world in freedom and rights can suffer deferral to a convenient future time. Appealing as this may seem, it is evident on closer examination that nearly all of these crises are either caused by or the causes of deepening inequality.
In different parts of the world, this inequality manifests itself in different ways between people and communities or between citizens and their governments. Across Africa, for instance, authoritarian government is on the rise; the right to vote is in danger from compromised electoral institutions and captured courts; a metastasis of sovereign debt overhang breeds rising immiseration; fragmentation and instability have increased conflict, atrocities, and associated displacement and rootlessness. Violence is a rising cause of death both directly and also in indirect forms which mostly destitute and endanger women.
Yet exciting new opportunities exist on this anniversary for advancing the message of the Universal Declaration and the mission of a more equal world. The digital revolution, for instance, makes possible new frontiers of awareness, advocacy, and accountability. Even as authoritarianism waxes, concentrations of power are waning in their influence.
Seventy-five years ago, the Guardian called the Universal Declaration “a stick with which governments and national consciences can be beaten.” The challenge of the next quarter century to the Centenary of the Universal Declaration will be to advance its realisation in ways that do not necessitate anyone feeling clobbered.
•A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at email@example.com