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WORLD | 10-12-2018 10:00

Universal Declaration of Human Rights: a 70-year-old aspiration

The declaration inspired all post-war treaties and is regarded as the foundation of international human rights law.

On December 10, 1948 – three years after the Allied victory over the Nazis – the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the hopes of creating a better world after the horrors of the war.

It was the first time that countries agreed on fundamental rights and freedoms to be protected on a universal scale, for all people. It was also one of the first achievements of the UN, itself born from the ashes of World War II.

Its adoption in Paris was hailed with a long standing ovation from delegates determined that the world would never again see the likes of Auschwitz and other atrocities.

Although without legal obligations, it stresses the supremacy of individual rights over those of states; it puts economic, social and cultural freedoms on the same level as civil and political rights.

Human rights were no longer exclusively an internal affair, as Hitler had claimed to prevent foreign interference in his affairs. They were now a universal issue.

On the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the milestone charter, here is some background.

Divided world seeks consensus

The UN's first General Assembly in 1946 created a Commission on Human Rights – made up of 18 members from various political, cultural and religious backgrounds – to work on an international bill of rights.

Its drafting committee first met in 1947 under the dynamic chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of the US president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Its other representatives were from eight countries, selected with regard for their geographical distribution, with Canada's John Peters Humphrey and Rene Cassin from France playing key roles in the drafts.

In 1948 the committee submitted to the UN's third General Assembly in Paris, which started in September, a draft for feedback from member states, with over 50 participating in the final document.

The version the assembly adopted on December 10 had the backing of 48 of the UN's then 58 countries. Of those who did not vote, Yemen and Honduras were absent. Eight abstained: Belarus, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Yugoslavia.

"At a time when the world was divided into Eastern and Western blocks, finding a common ground on what should make the essence of the document proved to be a colossal task," the UN says on its website.

Communists said there was an over-emphasis on individual and political rights at the expense of social rights; Western democracies were wary of the declaration becoming a restrictive legal tool that could be used against them by their own their colonies.

Inspiring but contested

Despite the doubts and debates at the time of its creation, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights inspired all post-war treaties and is regarded as the foundation of international human rights law.

The international conventions against the discrimination of women in 1979 and against torture in 1984, the rights of children in 1990, the creation of the International Criminal Court in 1998 – all are its direct descendants.

It also inspired the "right to intervene" in another country on humanitarian grounds, as championed by former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, who co-founded Doctors Without Borders.

But the declaration has not been able to prevent violations of the rights it espouses.

Nor has it escaped criticism, including that the concept of "universalism" is little more than a Western diktat, and with ideological, cultural and religious resistance from various countries, such as those that apply Islamic Sharia law.

Rethinking rights

Seventy years after its adoption, there are some calls for the declaration to be updated.

It should, for example, take into account new challenges such as climate change, mass migration and modern technologies, France's Human Rights League president Malik Salemkour told AFP in November.

It should also more concretely address situations where its key goals are far from being achieved, for example, in gender equality and the abolition of the death sentence, he said.

by Claude Casteran/AFP

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