CRS protection policy/issues advisor Daisy Francis wrote this reflection to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Just before the stroke of midnight on December 10, 1948, at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, the story goes, weary diplomats from 48 nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) The vote tally was 48 for (including newly independent countries like India, Burma and Pakistan); 0 against and 8 abstentions.
The UDHR, which would eventually be translated into 337 languages, symbolized the hopes, dreams and aspirations of millions who fought and/or survived World War II or overthrew colonial rule. It served as a clarion call to governments everywhere — respect, uphold and fulfill the rights of your citizens. And citizens were equally charged with the responsibility to hold their governments accountable for achieving these rights.
So, how far have we progressed since the drafters noted that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”?
Clearly there are people throughout the world who are living under conditions far from the letter and spirit of the declaration whose anniversary we mark. The answer may seem simplistic but it still needs to be said – unless and until every person achieves a level of rights that permits them to live a life of dignity and justice, we need to have a standard against which we measure progress and a standard which outlines what needs to be done.
Complex new issues confront us today which once again challenge the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Two examples:
- the continuing growth in the numbers of people who are displaced inside their own country (more than double the numbers that have crossed and become refugees). Internal displacement is increasingly the biggest humanitarian issue that confronts agencies such as CRS, made all the more complicated because there is not a public agreement on how best to serve the needs of populations that are inside sovereign states. As noted above, it is the primary responsibility of states to provide for the basic rights of their citizens. But what if the state is either unable or unwilling to do this? What is the moral obligation of the international community in this context? Do we ‘push’ for intervention and how is this not a ‘belligerent act’? Then again, do we simply let people die because they are inside a border?
- The growing role of non-state actors in conflicts (e.g. armed insurgent groups, contract security/armies) means that a wholly unaccountable group may be the source of the most egregious violations of human rights. The international system works on the assumption that states are accountable for non-compliance. But how does one hold groups who are not signatories to international legal rights bills accountable for their actions? Who will hold them accountable?
Such issues remind us that human rights are neither universally guaranteed nor achievable without constant vigilance. If we are to avoid the next affront to the conscience of mankind, then everyone needs to re-commit, on this International Human Rights Day, to support the establishment of an agile international human rights system able to respond to ever new problems. Then, never again will truly take root.
- Daisy Francis,
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