Human Rights: The Sixtieth Anniversary

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Human Rights: The Sixtieth Anniversary


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


DECEMBER marks the sixtieth anniversary of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The twentieth century saw both some of history's worst violations of human rights and yet also some of the most spectacular advances in their protection. There is a still long way to go. But, at least there is the recognition that human rights are now a global (and not merely a national) issue.

Human rights are fundamental privileges or immunities to which all people have a claim. They are not 'given' by governments because they are derived automatically as a result of someone being a member of humankind. Since governments cannot 'give' human rights, they should not try to take them away. Human rights thinking - especially since 1945 - is based on the assumption that in essence all human beings have a common core. Human beings may be divided on gender lines, speak different languages, and have different skin colours. But fundamentally there are great similarities and these similarities are manifested partly in the rights that all humans enjoy.

The UN Charter's Preamble of 1945 reaffirms 'faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small'. Article 55(c) states that one of the UN's purposes is to achieve 'universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion'. In Article 56 'All Members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organization for the achievement of the purposes set forth in Article 55'.

The basic UN human rights document is the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among its 30 Articles are: the right to life, liberty and security of person; equality before the law; freedom of movement and residence; freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; the right to seek in other countries asylum from persecution; freedom of thought, religion and conscience; the rights to vote and to participate in government; the right to education; the right to work; the right to form and join trades unions; the right to an adequate standard of living; the right to health protection; and the right to participate fully in cultural life.

Human rights are divided into two general categories, and then one category is further divided into three sub-categories. Almost all human rights apply to individuals. There is, however, one collective human right: the right to self-determination (that is, for a 'people' to run their own affairs). The collective right to self-determination - although the term itself is modern -has a long history. For example Moses in leading the Hebrews out of Egypt was the leader (in our terms) of a 'national liberation movement' and the Hebrews were seeking 'self-determination'. George Washington, Ho Chi Minh and Nelson Mandela are further examples of leaders of peoples wishing to exercise their right of self-determination.

The category of individual human rights may be divided into three subcategories. The oldest human rights are civil and political ones, such as the rights to a fair trial and to take part in politics. Second, just over a century ago, as European countries started to create 'welfare states', so recognition was given to economic and social rights, such as the rights to work and equal pay for equal work. Third, there are the new 'rights of solidarity", which can only be attained through the united efforts of all the global actors (not just governments). For example, the right to a healthy environment began at the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Rights (principle 1 of the Stockholm Declaration). (1) It has become a rallying point for environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and got further attention in inter-governmental documents (such as the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development). …

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