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The Eternal UN Declaration of Human Rights

NEW YORK – What responsibility do we have for the world we inhabit? What do we owe one another, and what can we claim from others who share the planet with us? As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, the importance of such global-minded ethical considerations is becoming ever clearer. Indeed, it is imperative for us to begin thinking as global citizens, citizens of the world, even if our first allegiance is to a particular country.

That shift in mindset is exactly what the so-called Global Citizen Commission is attempting to achieve. Led by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the GCC includes Graça Machel, Anthony Appiah, Amartya Sen, Wang Chenguang, Kate O’Regan, Robert Rubin, Asma Jahangir, Jonathan Sacks, Mohamed ElBaradei, and me. Together, we have been working to articulate and publicize the ethical basis of global citizenship, not by issuing some new manifesto, but by revisiting and renewing existing charters and declarations that can underpin a new, ethically responsible world order. Among those documents is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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Affirmed and published in 1948, the UDHR was intended to serve “as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” Following the barbarism and savagery of the 1930s and 1940s, the UDHR reaffirmed “the dignity and worth of the human person” and “the equal rights of men and women.”

The Declaration’s provisions are comprehensive, ranging from prohibitions on arbitrary arrest, affirmations of free expression, and freedom of thought and worship, to rights of asylum, the right to a nationality, the right to democracy, and social rights like education and just and favorable labor conditions. International lawyers know it as the foundation on which subsequent human-rights covenants – including those on civil and political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights, as well as a host of conventions prohibiting torture, slavery, and gender discrimination – have been built.

While the UDHR is not a binding source of international law, it conveys the spirit of the world’s expectations regarding human rights. The international-level commitment to upholding human rights that exists today would be unthinkable without the UDHR.

Yet, after six decades, there are questions about the UDHR’s continued relevance as a cornerstone of global ethics. To answer them, the GCC carried out a four-year study assessing the UDHR, not just as a foundation for global human rights, but as an early and momentous expression of our responsibilities to one another. Last week, we handed a report on our findings to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Inevitably, a declaration drafted in 1948 will differ in wording and emphasis from one created in 2016. For example, had the UDHR been drafted today, it would probably say more about migration, sexuality, health care, disability, environmental rights, humanitarian intervention, and the maintenance of basic rights under emergency conditions. Every era has its priorities.

But what stands out most from our study of the UDHR was the continuing relevance of its main provisions. The economic and social rights – to social security, education, decent working conditions, and a reasonable standard of living – are stated carefully and responsibly, with close attention to the significance of these rights for human dignity. Basic freedoms and legal rights – like freedom of speech and worship, as well as due process and the proper treatment of prisoners and detainees – are set out in terms that people in free and open societies continue to find compelling.

With billions of people – shaped by different cultures, backgrounds, and traditions – jostling for space in a crowded world – global ethics can seem like a hopeless pursuit. Yet, amid all the diversity and conflict, the UDHR stands uncompromisingly for certain key values that support the freedom and wellbeing of each and every member of the human race, rich or poor, young or old, powerful or vulnerable.

Of course, our global responsibilities extend beyond human rights. We also have humanitarian responsibilities in circumstances of disaster and poverty. We are responsible for protecting the planet and its climate, particularly as it relates to our obligations to future generations. We must ensure the maintenance of peace and security through the UN system. And we must strengthen the frameworks of trade and communication that enable people to relate to one another scientifically, economically, and culturally as citizens of a shared world.

But the importance of human rights cannot be overestimated. As the UDHR states, “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order” in which their rights and freedoms can be fully realized.

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A key question, which we considered in our report, is who precisely bears these responsibilities. Naturally, primary responsibility for upholding human rights falls on governments, which are legally bound to do so. But governments are also often the greatest threat to their citizens’ human rights. That is why interventions by supra-national institutions, not to mention the involvement of NGOs and civil society, are also critical.

As the UDHR declares, “every individual and every organ of society shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition.” That is the fundamental message of the UDHR concerning the responsibilities of global citizenship. It must never be forgotten.