Background: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) today
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is the central, defining, document of the human rights movement. It consists of thirty articles, and was drafted in the years immediately following WWII by a team of eminent legal scholars under the guidance of Eleanor Roosevelt, the first chairman of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Commission. The UN General Assembly officially endorsed the Declaration on 10th December, 1948. In effect, it was approved unanimously since there with no dissenting votes, though several countries, objecting to specific features, abstained. Since it has never been repudiated by the UN or any of its member states, it remains, in principle, a pillar of the contemporary system of international laws. It is not strictly speaking, however, a legal document, since it is neither a treaty nor a binding international law. Furthermore, and crucially, it has no enforcement mechanism. Instead, it is a statement of aspirations subscribed to and affirmed by the member states of the United Nations. The Declaration is, however, cited in several international covenants that are considered legally binding and it continues to be, whatever its ambiguous legal status, the gold standard of human rights observance in the world today.
Basic premise, goal, and strategy of the present political initiative
Nevertheless, the UDHR currently has little effective force in the world, especially in terms of how nations actually treat their citizens, resident non-citizens and those seeking asylum. It does not, as noted, have the full force of international law and it lacks an enforcement mechanism. Therefore, governments that violate either the spirit or the letter of the UDHR can do so with impunity. The question arises, therefore, as to how the Declaration can be made a more effective force in the world. Our basic premise is that reaffirmation of the UDHR by many countries would greatly increase awareness and impact of the Declaration. Indeed, even the debates and discussions about reaffirmation would, in themselves, have positive effects in that direction, but national acts of reaffirmation would give the Declaration far more presence and force in the minds of people everywhere.
Our immediate goal, therefore, is to activate as many civil society organizations (CSOs) and NGOs as possible in support of reaffirmation of the UDHR worldwide. Such organizations would request that governments either reaffirm their support of, and commitment to, the UDHR or provide a statement on why they would not. Our idea is to obtain the participation not only of dedicated human rights organizations, but rather organizations and groups concerned with improving the humananity and decency of civil society for any and all of its members: those concerned with women’s rights or access to services, civil liberties or LGBT rights, refugees or standards of living and education.
The immediate challenge to the proposed campaign is that the UDHR is still too little known by the public in most countries for reaffirmation campaigns to have much traction at present. Therefore, our strategy is to proceed in two steps: 1) establishing a much broader awareness of the UDHR and its potential for promoting human rights; and, then 2) focused work to publicly and politically pressure individual governments into reaffirming the Declaration. Initially, in the first step, organizations should state and explain in their publications and materials which article(s) of the UDHR are relevant to their specific campaigns. If done widely, this will provide a huge boost to awareness of the Declaration. Once the educational groundwork has been laid over the course of the next two years, the second step will be put in motion: activating CSOs and NGOs to request that their governments reaffirm the UDHR.