70 Years of the Declaration of Human Rights

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” wrote Martin Luther King in 1963 in a Letter from the Birmingham Jail. Thus we still live with the same threat to justice. This is why transgressions in some distant lands mean justice is not at home here, writes Neven Andjelic, Reader in International Relations and Human Rights.

A state sponsored murder of a Saudi activist and journalist has brought international uproar. Another state organised genocide of Rohingya people in Burma has been universally condemned. Although neither of these has helped the victims, it is a reflection of our time – an era of human rights. There is not a single state representative recorded to have opposed, in public, a set of rights we are all entitled to by the simple fact that we are humans.

Slavoj Žižek, usually intentionally controversial, titled his work “Against Human Rights”, thus keeping up well with his pseudo-Marxist image, which he carefully built around - even he felt a need to address the issue. While many people are deprived of some of the rights, it is safe to argue the real age of human rights is approaching.

It has been only one hundred years since the Peacemakers, as Margaret MacMillan described them in “Six Months that Changed the World”, rejected the only proposal Japanese delegation really cared for: the Racial Equality Clause. The failure of the proposal uncovered restricted Anglo-American idealism for global justice. Restrictions of equal rights to people of different races, gender, ethnicities and religious beliefs, ideas and orientations remained and contributed to another global conflict.

This was followed by industrious efforts of activists like Eleonor Roosevelt and support from across the political spectrum that led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948. No country dared to vote against the Declaration. Yet there were eight countries that have abstained. Of these eight, Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia have become history since, as has the regime of apartheid in South Africa.

The regime has been changed in Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. Saudi Arabia, though, is still ruled by the same family on the same basic principles that do not provide for equality of everyone.

Mark Mazower argued “the post-war triumph of human rights can be told in an optimistic mode,” but it was also a tool for state interest, he said.

Human rights are described as individual for the reason of the interwar period, when the largest ethnic minority in Europe, Germans, was a major concern. When minority rights became part of bilateral relations, foreign policy tool and international bodies repeatedly showed lack of potency - the issue domestically seeks advocacy of more radical solutions.

Reminding us of 1933 in Germany, there are few nations in Europe today not experiencing a rise in nationalist politics. The rise of Nazis was followed by universal disaster. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is therefore attempting to prevent a repeat of history, even in minor forms.

Humanity is learning and, following WWII, the Chinese proposal for racial equality attracted stronger sympathies than the Japanese attempt three decades earlier. The UN Charter included strong references to human rights.

Human rights are individual but could be enjoyed collectively, as Council of Europe insists in its conventions. By insisting on individuality and universality of human rights, architects of the Declaration have attempted to provide obstacles to extremist politicians leading nations to conflict by claiming to protect certain nation’s rights.

This is not enough, however. We need to stand up for human rights, and while doing so we should stand up for our own rights.

International tribunals are setting up precedents. While “evidence of possible offences [by the Allies] was generally swept under the nearest convenient carpet,” as Geoffrey Nice described post-WWII tribunals, more recent examples of tribunals for former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and other special courts led to the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

The struggle for human rights is not only international. A recent study revealed that the gender pay gap in West Midlands is 27 per cent. Homosexuality is still a crime in 72 countries, but it is not the easiest lifestyle even in societies where this sexual orientation is legal. The BBC looked into this, producing an iWonder, titled: “Is Belfast the worst place to be gay in the UK?” A white supremacist admitted being behind a letter-campaign entitled “Punish a Muslim Day”. The unemployment rate of eight per cent for black, Asian and minority ethnic groups is almost double that of white Britons.

Significantly, a Jewish or Catholic Prime Minister in the United Kingdom is still a fiction. This would be impossible constitutionally due to the PM's role in advising the Queen in making ecclesiastical appointments. There are laws forbidding Catholics and Jews from advising the crown on religious matters. They are specifically barred from becoming the sovereign or heir to the throne.

One could be critical of the current state of play both in the United Kingdom and globally but there should also be pride in huge achievements on humanity’s road to universal justice. Proof of some positive historical changes can be found if we look into statements and behaviour of some historical greats.

Church leaders in Alexandria, Virginia, removed the plaque for the slave-owning president George Washington and for a second parishioner, confederate General Robert Lee. Students at Princeton demanded renaming of one of its schools named after Woodrow Wilson, former American president but also a supporter of Ku Klux Klan. Thomas Jefferson, the third American president, has been target of similar initiative by students at the University of Missouri. Revolutionary 1989 in Europe was marked by regime changes, freedom, democracy, collapse of the Iron Curtain but also was also characterised by removal of many monuments. Statues of Lenin have been literally flying over many European cities while being removed from central squares.

Judging historical actors by today’s moral and ethical standards is difficult and will not make justice either to historical figures nor to contemporary society. After all, it was Winston Churchill who inspired European Convention on Human Rights. Yet earlier in his career, Churchill saw Mahatma Gandhi as a “seditious fakir, striking half-naked up the steps of Viceroy’s palace,” while of the Chinese he said “faggot vote on the side of the United States”.

During the Second World War and a global struggle against horrible crimes, we should be aware that the concept of inequality and the supremacy of one race over another was not alien to the later victorious side. The Mississippi representative at the time said he would never permit anyone to “pump Negro or Japanese blood into veins of our wounded white boys.”

Racial, religious, ethnic and other exclusivities seem to be coming back on a large scale into the contemporary world. The consequence is over 25 million refugees and 40 million modern slaves, of which 25 million people were made to work under threat or coercion, 15 million people were in forced marriages, almost five million in forced sexual exploitation and over four million in state imposed forced labour.

The consequence is also a rise of authoritarianism, populists spread, jailing of political opponents, ideology of supremacy, building fences between states, building walls in inner cities, bringing autocratic rulers to power by democratic means… The consequence is Brexit, after all.

Karl Popper said that “those who promise us paradise on earth never produced anything but a hell”. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, during its 70 years of life, never promised paradise, but it certainly prevented hell.

Image credit: Davorka Andjelic