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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70

When it was adopted in December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sent the unequivocal message that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. But the UDHR remains constrained by a lack of consensus about why the rights it includes should be regarded as fundamental, let alone who should protect them and how.

LONDON – Seven decades after its adoption, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) remains a beacon of hope for the world, sending out an unequivocal message that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and that no abuse of human rights can be allowed to continue without challenge.

While illiberalism and authoritarianism is on the rise, it is important to recall that the UDHR – and the covenants and conventions it has inspired – champions every person’s right to life, liberty, and security. Incorporated into many countries’ constitutions, it stipulates that no one should be subjected to torture or to arbitrary arrest or detention. It enshrines the rights to a fair trial, privacy, free expression and association, and freedom of thought in religion and conscience. Moreover, it emphasizes important social and economic rights, such as the right to work and form labor unions.

But the authors of the UDHR – created amid the Cold War politics of the 1940s – could only agree on what rights people should have, not on why these rights should be regarded as fundamental, let alone how or by whom they should be protected. At the outset, there were no enforcement treaties, no proper appeal mechanisms, and, until much later, not even basic covenants countries could sign. A creature of its time, the UDHR also says little about the rights of women, the disabled, the LGBTQ+ community, and children. And so, despite major advances over the last seven decades – such as the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the UN’s Responsibility to Protect doctrine – human-rights abuses continue to be perpetrated at an alarming rate and with virtual impunity.

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