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 and goal of the present political initiative
Nevertheless, the UDHR currently has little effective force in the world, in terms of how nations actually treat their peoples or 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.
The basic premise of the political initiative by the Reaffirmation Forum is that if governments around the world are urged to address their commitment to the UDHR today, they will either be pushed to reaffirm their support for the Declaration, at least its spirit and goals, or state why they are not. The first result would allow individuals and NGOs to hold them responsible for their human rights records, while the second would open up the possibility of campaigns to strengthen the observance of human rights. The minimum that such a movement would achieve would be much broader international discussion of, and attention to, the articles of the Declaration. It should also force attention to the severe deficits of human rights observances around the world, attention that could galvanize actions to reduce those deficits. In a broad sense, therefore, the initiative has a large educational component, as well as a specific political goal.
The immediate aim is to generate enough political interest in the coming months such that by the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the UDHR by the UN, on 10th December, 2018, a number of countries will have reaffirmed the UDHR and others will, at least, been urged to reveal the grounds of their resistance to the idea and thereby galvanize counter-actions to strengthen specific human rights. Although the idea is to use the 70th anniversary of the UDHR as a focal point to concentrate attention on the initiative, it is expected that many countries will not have committed themselves by that date and, therefore, that the effort will continue, almost certainly for several years and probably up to the 75th anniversary, which would become the next focal date to concentrate attention upon the issue.
To activate as many civil society organizations (CSOs) and NGOs around the world as possible in support of reaffirmation of the UDHR, to request that governments either reaffirm their support of, and commitment to, the UDHR or provide a statement on why they would not. The statement of reaffirmation should be simple, a few sentences, hence a small paragraph. The idea would be to obtain the participation of many different organizations in support, not just dedicated human rights organizations, though their support would be crucial. Hence, groups concerned with refugees, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and civil liberties groups, indeed most of those concerned with improving civil society. Discussions are now taking place as to the most effective way to reach and convince the relevant NGOs worldwide. A draft version of what a statement of reaffirmation may look like is given below.
Draft Reaffirmation Statement
As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) approaches the 70th anniversary of its approval by the General Assembly of the United Nations (10th December, 1948), the international observance of human rights is perhaps at its all-time low since the end of the Cold War twenty-five years ago. Yet, the importance of human rights is no less than it ever has been. Support for human rights is not a zero-sum game in which increased rights for some means fewer for others; everyone benefits from observance of human rights. Accordingly, a world in which the basic human rights, as first outlined in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” – freedom to life, freedom for political and religious liberty, freedom from want and freedom from fear – are universally supported is one that should be sought by all nations. We are aware that some of the articles of the UDHR are controversial in some countries and cultures, that the UDHR particularly reflected Western values of its time, and also that some human rights widely recognized today were not explicitly recognized in the Declaration. Nevertheless, we, the (Congress, National Assembly, Parliament…) of (name of country here) believe that the spirit, thrust and basic aims of the UDHR remain as valid today as they were perceived to be in the years following WWII and we, accordingly, reaffirm our support for the basic principles and aspirations of the UDHR.