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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 75. And so what?

Posted on: November 3, 2023

Everyone wants peace. To build peace, human rights are necessary. Vice-versa, to conquer human rights, peacebuilding is necessary. They are intertwined. They are at the core of a triple nexus of Peace between Security, Democracy and Development.
As we celebrate 75 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it is time to reflect on its relevancy regarding its potential to shape a "better world" under this triangular dimension.
Human rights and the decline of security, democracy and development
First, the pillar of security is at risk. Beyond the interstate conflict between Ukraine and Russia, we witness increased violence in all intrastate conflicts, such as DRC, Ethiopia (Tigray), Yemen, South Sudan and the Occupied territories of Palestine. International watchdogs also observe an unprecedented increase in military expenditure, even from countries technically not at war, such as Australia. We have recently reached an unprecedented figure: over 100 million forced refugees. It is not a "refugee crisis", as the news media headlines mistakenly titled. It is a humanitarian crisis in which all 30 human rights listed at the UDHR are in jeopardy, mirroring human insecurity. It is mainly the case for Article 3 on the right to life, liberty and security. As well as for Article 28 on the right to a free and fair world where everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms are secured. Noteworthily, following long-standing efforts since the 1970s, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the Declaration on the Right to Peace in 2016,  which reaffirms the 1945' UDHR and proclaims both international peace and intra-state peace as human rights with individual and collective dimensions. If security is in decline, so is peace as human rights.
Second, the pillar of democracy is at peril. The past 2 decades have shown a two-way trend. On the one hand, there has been an exponential increase in civil conflicts and authoritarian regimes, as in Syria, Libya and Mali. On the other hand, there is a decrease in the levels of democracy, even in states traditionally considered consolidated democracies, such as the United States and Spain. There are twice the number of autocracies than democracies in the world. Notably, authoritarian regimes such as Russia, Uganda (anti-LGBTQI+ laws) and China (Uiguirs, Tibet and Hong Kong) have become even more violent. Only 20 percent of the world's population lives in 'free countries'. That means that 8 in 10 people live in 'not free' or 'partly free' states, according to Freedom House. In Turkey, Erdogan's re-election signifies his increase in authoritarian rule into a third decade as the country reels from high inflation and the aftermath of an earthquake. In Myanmar, levels of human rights violations are considered a textbook of genocide, and in Haiti and Somalia, their deep institutional crisis categorizes them as failed states.
Some academics argue that democracy is dying. If that is the case, so are human rights. Among the countries with the least freedom, measured in terms of civil liberties and political rights by the Freedom House, include Cuba, Laos, Tajikistan, Central African Republic, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Equatorial Guinea, Turkmenistan and Eritrea. Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, an "epidemic of coups" seems to have taken the stage internationally. Since 2021, the number of coups, coup attempts, and violent demonstrations matched the highest point in the 21st century, accelerating cycles of violence in countries wracked by conflicts with Myanmar, Armenia, Nigeria, Gabon, and the "Sahel coup belt" comprised by Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Sudan. Not all coups are the same, and none contributes to restoring or advancing democracy and human rights. Ironically, as if on a historical cycle, some places stage a military coup to overthrow another military junta that came to power by coup both praising to (re)install democracy, such as Burkina Fasso. In Niger and Gabon, the coup d'etat was welcomed with jubilance. Differently, Tunisians violently protested against the transformation of the political system and the expansion of presidential executive power after the dissolution of the parliament and the proclamation of a new constitution and electoral law.
If democracy is in decline, so are justice and the rule of law. Articles 1 to 21 of the UDHR, are imperilled such as: freedom from torture and degrading treatment, recognition everywhere as a person before the law, right to a fair tribunal, freedom from arbitrary detention and exile, freedom of belief and religion, freedom of opinion and information, right of peaceful assembly and association and the right to participate in government and free elections. Significantly, we experience many hate and fake media that limit the information and call for violence.
Third, the pillar of development. We live in an unequal world where 99% of the global wealth belongs to 1% of the world population. Inevitably, inequality also affects fundamental rights. According to recent data from the 78th United Nations General Assembly, the ten richest billionaires have more wealth than the poorest 40 per cent of humanity. Unequal access to safe and secure food, healthcare, education, and employment opportunities all exacerbate inequalities and have amplified by growing geopolitical tensions. Among so many complexities, Palestinians are literally thirsty for justice and the right to existence as Israel controls the water supply and intentionally provokes draught and contamination. If the world is unequal, human rights are not universal. Instead it is an illusion for many and a privilege of few.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are urgent and interconnected. Nevertheless, halfway to 2030, we are nowhere near achieving the SDGs and a new "boost" or acceleration pact was signed. Currently only 15 per cent are on track, while many are going in reverse. Notably, some obvious goals for a "peaceful and prosperous world" are missing, such as eradicating nuclear and biological weapons. It is also arguable that there are too many goals along with 169 targets. Therefore, it is a framework  destined to fail. A world with "no poverty", "zero hunger", "education", "clean water", is also a word idealized by the 30 universal Human Rights, particularly those listed in Articles 22 to 27 on individual's economic, social and cultural rights. In a "gender apartheid" context in Afghanistan under Taliban rule and food insecurity, human rights of non-discrimination based on gender or race, and the right to education or housing are absent. Numbers are essential: 1.2 billion people were still living in poverty as of 2022 with less than US$2,05 a day, and almost 700 million people will still be facing hunger by the end of the decade.
Humanity is so lethargic that it needs to select and list inalienable rights and constantly reaffirm the obvious, such as the 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development. Nevertheless, in line with the right to self-determination, development is a reality for only a few. A debt crisis is synonymous of a development disaster. According to the latest finding by the UN, approximately 3.3 billion people live in countries that spend more servicing interest on debt than health or education. That is almost half of humanity. The global public debt crisis reached a historical record of $92 trillion. Disproportionately, the debt is heavily concentrated in the poor developing countries, which are the ones that most need to invest in sustainable development and socio-economic human rights. Due to the investment political risk and the global financial architecture, the growing share of debt mirrors how financing is inadequate and expensive for developing countries. African countries pay four times more on average for loans than the United States and eight times more than the former European colonizers. All that, makes the typology of "developing" a going-backwards process. Instead of an advancing process towards "developed", it reassures to keep them "under-developed" or slaves of the financial system as a great portion of their population faces hunger and food insecurity. Thus, if socio-economic development is in decline, so are human rights.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. Thus, no one shall be held in slavery. Nevertheless, in a globalised world, "modern slavery" and human trafficking are an aberration to any human rationality. Despite a unanimous aim for peace, if security, democracy and development are in jeopardy, so are the other human rights treaties, such as: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The future is now: leave no human rights behind
Despite devastating conflicts, rising poverty, surging hunger and the consequences of climate change, there is good news that might avoid leading to the rule of lawlessness. From a larger historical perspective, we achieved unprecedented levels of human rights. Some even dare to argue a Barbie-world-pink theory that we live in the most peaceful time of humankind. Tools such as innovation, technology, and high-impact partnerships between governments, civil society, private sector and academia might drive meaningful change to a world of "justice for all". Importantly, the UN 2023 New agenda for peace is also a hope to guide achieving a peaceful and prosperous world.
The future must also address the threat that Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) can cause to human rights, and, therefore, to peace, security, democracy and development. Artificial Inteligence (AI) can be a game changer towards human development, but a disaster if not monitored and regulated.
The UDHR provides a critical foundation for sustaining peace, in particular to Member States. Despite a collective responsibility that calls for "all", including states, corporations and civil society, it neglects the significant threat of non-state actors. Similarly, collective responsibility usually leads to paralysis and no accountability.
To "fight" for human rights is a transgression for any human reasonableness exercise. As per the preamble, they are incontrovertible, inalienable, indivisible. But it seems they are not universal by resembling a privilege, not a right. We have come a long way, but it is still a long way forward. In a world grappling with increasingly complex crises ranging from poverty and inequality to the climate emergency, the respect to human rights remains at the forefront of the global response, determined to set humanity on a path to peace and prosperity. As we celebrate 75 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it is time to reflect on its relevancy in today's times regarding its potential to shape a "better world". Similarly, it is also time to celebrate 30th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.
Under the triangular dimension of peace, where human rights are epicentral, it remains imperative for the security, democracy and development pillars to make better use of the existing mechanisms. Human rights treaty bodies, special procedures, the universal periodic review, and their recommendations in support of Member States must be reinforced along with the notion of collective responsibility and accountability.
The 75' anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls for freedom, equality and justice for all. Beyond the notion of absence of war, peace is the presence of justice, and consequently, of human rights. The SDGs call to leave no one behind. Similarly, we should leave no human rights behind. As on a Sysiphus myth, it is time to renew commitments in favor of the defence of the obvious: human dignity.