10th December marks Human Rights Day, set aside annually to mark the date on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. December 14th also marks the date, 64 years later, on which Commonwealth Heads of Government adopted the Charter of the Commonwealth. Article two of the Charter of the Commonwealth states that Commonwealth member states are ‘committed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, which goes to show how seminal this founding document is to enshrining basic human rights for all. It is important that the weight held by such a document is noted, and that time is taken to reflect on what the UDHR represents and protects.
This year, the theme of Human Rights Day is ‘Human Rights 365’, reflecting that whilst it is important to mark the anniversary of the adoption of the UDHR, its relevance lies in its application every day of the year, for all citizens of the world, without exception or preference. This is a baseline to which we must all continue to aspire, because it is clear to see that no member state of the United Nations has achieved universal human rights to date.
Debate continues within the Commonwealth about the prioritisation of certain human rights over others. For many developing countries in the Commonwealth, the emphasis is often placed on economic and social rights, for instance the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of an individual, including food, clothing, housing and medical care (Art. 25). This is understandable in populations where these fundamental necessities for survival are at times hard to come by, where poverty is rife, and where for large proportions of the population survival is a struggle. It tends to be in higher income countries that political and civil rights are given greater import, such as the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association (Art. 20).
However, Article Two of the UDHR states that ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind.’ This article comes before any individual human right outlined further on in the document, and thus sets out two tenets which are fundamental to human rights: universality, and indivisibility. These tenets are all too often forgotten or ignored by the international community. In the Commonwealth some member states criminalise homosexuality, claiming that LGBT rights are not a priority in countries where there are people who cannot afford to eat; other member states push through authoritarian laws, claiming that individual freedoms are not a priority for countries faced with the threat of international terrorism; and still more choose not to crack down on harmful practices such as child marriage or female genital mutilation, claiming that it is not the place for a government to intercede in cultural practices.
The strength of human rights lies as much in the tenets of universality and indivisibility as it does in articles of law set out in various international treaties and national constitutions. These tenets remind us that human rights are not there to protect the majority: they are there to protect the individual – to protect everybody. This protection extends to those people society does not like, those who may not conform, those we do not wish to tolerate, even to those whom we think dangerous, and equally to those society deems unimportant enough to ignore.
The adoption of the UDHR was a monumental achievement for humankind 66 years ago, and in 2012 the Commonwealth passed a milestone when every member state signed the Charter. The signing of this and other international charters and treaties shows that progress is being made and consensus is building on human rights issues. But signing documents is not enough. In a year that has seen war rage across the Middle East, increasing global climatic disasters, and the international Ebola epidemic, it is even more important that we pledge to work harder together to find solutions to human rights violations. The Commonwealth can be a strong platform from which to do this, with shared language, similar legal and political frameworks, and strong relationships amongst member states. With these tools, whilst the coming year may not see the achievement of universal human rights, we hope that it will see progress.