A year-long campaign was launched on Monday to mark the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which falls on December 10, 2008. This campaign will engage the whole United Nations system in promoting the Declaration’s ideals and principles of justice and equality for all. But the celebrations are meant not only as tributes to an extraordinary human achievement. They will also be reminders that the goal of making the declaration a living reality for everyone has yet to be realised.
Today, a complex web of international instruments has fleshed out the content of the baskets of rights that the declaration spelled out, including civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. All States have ratified at least one of the core nine international human rights treaties, and 80 per cent have ratified four or more. Yet despite recognition in law and in stated commitments, glaring gaps in implementation of human rights standards are found in every country. Abuse, discrimination and inequality are still pervasive. Nothing exemplifies this better than the failure to grant justice to the victims of discrimination and human rights violations. Many judicial systems lack professionalism or have a long history of intimidation and subservience that prevents accountability for perpetrators’ actions and denies their victims proper recourse.
Such profound, widespread and recurrent challenges have prompted some to question the vitality, relevance, and applicability of the declaration’s principles. However, it is not the soundness of the declaration’s vision, but the commitment of governments to implementing its norms and their management of competing aspirations and scarce resources that should come under scrutiny. Clearly, legitimate, independent and effective institutions of governance are necessary to meet the human rights requirements of justice, effective participation and genuine accountability.
Another form of criticism has targeted the very concept of universality on which the declaration rests. Some sceptics argue that civil and political rights belong solely to Western traditions and agendas. For their part, critics coming from liberal economic perspectives are wary of the declaration’s economic and social rights, which they regard as either hampering free market practices, or imposing too cumbersome obligations on States or both. Some have espoused rejectionist positions and recast them into self-serving doctrines to preserve privileges and power uniquely for themselves and a selected few, while denying the rights of everyone else.
Far from suffocating pluralism and from being a partisan concoction, the declaration was the product of the considered judgment of an inspired group of framers who came from diverse backgrounds and regions and who drew from a wide spectrum of legal, religious, and political traditions. They sought a “common standard of achievement” for all to share. The balance they attained 60 years ago is an equilibrium we should never cease to strive for, irrespective of how our approaches may vary.
As we seek to advance this area of agreement, States and all stakeholders should concentrate instead on how to remove the obstacles that continue to hamper the implementation of all human rights standards. Beyond good intent, this endeavour must be understood and carried out as a genuine responsibility to empower rights holders.
Louise Arbour is UN High Commissioner for Human Rights