Today, the United Nations kicked off in Paris a year-long campaign to honor the foundational human rights document, which will mark its 70th anniversary.
Since the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, “human rights have been one of the three pillars of the United Nations, along with peace and development,” said Secretary-General António Guterres in his message for Human Rights Day, annually observed on 10 December.
As “one of the world’s most profound and far-reaching international agreements,” the Universal Declaration proclaimed the inalienable rights of every human being regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. It is the most translated document in the world, available in more than 500 languages.
Unfortunately, the fundamental rights are being tested every day in the five continents and even if mass or systemic violations appear to be the norm only in some states – usually those which cannot be defined democracies – they appear to be evanescent also in all the countries and territories characterized by extreme poverty and/or severe inequalities. More often than we think, also in mature democracies, there are serious injuries of human rights affecting marginalized minorities (as the Roma in Europe) and the weaker part of the population – such as migrants and refugees.
Indeed, there are different categories of human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural – and they are interrelated more than they appear. Denying education to children – or just to little girls – seriously impairs their future ability to enjoy civil and political rights as well as their access to good standards of living.
Denying health care to poor people or access to safe food (and air!) are violations which can occur in the most civilized of nations (admitting this expression holds any sense). Denying equal rights to women is something which happens patently in maybe one third of the world, but sometimes it happens in subtle ways also in the remaining two thirds.
So, sometimes I have wondered which could be the real impact of a standard which appears out of reach for most of the world and, even when solemnly proclaimed and legally enforced, seems quite theoretical. Except when a court has the opportunity to offer about it a concrete example, which happens sometimes – not for everyone, not always.
Nonetheless, the fundamental rights became important as a standard used to assess our level of humanity and the respect of the rule of law. They progressively welded with our notion of democracy transforming it from the inside. Putting the individual at the core not just as a holder of sovereignty, but also as a beneficiary of a basket of rights that in many cases require the state to take positive action.
The UN year-long campaign is the opportunity to revive all this, to recall that all nations can still do more and work more for the human rights to be not just myth, but reality.
It is also important to remember that the levels of protection achieved must be defended because it is always possible to go back. According to Freedom House “There were setbacks in political rights, civil liberties, or both, in a number of countries rated “Free” by the report, including Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Tunisia, and the United States.”