Making human rights count, seventy years down the line

BY: Lawrence Mantey

It has been 70 years since the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on December 10, 1948.

Just a few weeks away, the world will mark this remarkable achievement which has established a broad range of civil, social, economic and political rights which are codified and extended in a series of treaties, most notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on

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Economic Social and Cultural Right both opened for signature in 1966 and coming into force a decade later.

Human Rights is one of the newest areas of international law.

Until it was included in the preamble and chapter one of the UN Charter, human rights was rarely a part of diplomatic discourse.


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The decades following the adoption of the UDHR has witnessed significant progress in the spread of the idea.

Human rights has advanced from a mere slogan to a programme of action covering women, children, ethnic minorities, refugees and many more.

The human right movement has also arisen the awareness of the need to preserve cultural rights.

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This relates to a group’s ability to preserve aspects of its culture and defend it from extermination by the nation in which it is located.

A related notion of Intellectual Property Right (IPR) has also arisen in an attempt to conserve each society’s cultural base – core beliefs, knowledge and practice.

The influence of international law and norms have always run counter to the unimpeded exercise of state sovereignty.

The struggle becomes more intense as one moves from long-standing tradition of diplomatic laws to recent norms governing human rights.

Though significant progress has been made in the area of human rights as stated above, much work remains to be done on implementing the human rights programme.

Today, the human right effort centres on winning basic human rights in authoritarian countries.

It becomes more challenging in this regard when any action taken seems to interfere in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state.

There are a number of countries that have cracked down on non-governmental organisations promoting human rights within their territories.

Currently, no country in the world can lay claim to a perfect record of human rights, and there are differences as to which area a particular country respects or violates.

In a situation where states see the pursuit of rights as unnecessary and even dangerous and extravagant and, sometimes, as an idea which is supposed to be at odds with national interest, it makes it very difficult for any humanitarian intervention to safeguard human rights in any country where populations are at risk of slaughter and persecution.

A major challenge facing the world today with regard to human rights is how to reach a consensus on the extent to which the international community has the responsibility to intervene in order to enforce human rights in a situation where they are being violated.

Despite this challenge, the concept of human right has become a force to reckon with.

There are now widely held norms about how governments should behave towards the people within their territories.

There is likely to be a time when governments may actually adhere to these norms as they have began to do in some areas such as the abolition of slavery and its trade.

It is in order to mention Eleanor Roosevelt, the woman who championed this cosmopolitan idea in our modern world.

She was responsible for the global acceptance in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights through the energetic leadership she displayed at the time.

Many can benefit from her nightly prayer anytime they think about human rights: “Save us from ourselves and show us a vision of a world made anew.”

The writer is at the Institute of Current Affairs and Diplomacy (ICAD)
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