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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70

Last month, on 10 December 2018, the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was celebrated. It is important to realise that the Declaration was accepted at a moment when many European countries still had large colonial empires, and against the backdrop of the recently established United Nations which was primarily meant to serve the interests of Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States – the three victorious powers of the Second World War. After two months of negotiations the Declaration was accepted in 1948 by 48 countries (8 countries abstained from voting). It follows from the non-binding nature of the Declaration that it has more moral than legal authority; and that the United Nations is a club of States, not a vehicle to promote human rights. Still, there was a strong momentum for human rights immediately after the war, resulting for example in the 1948 Genocide Convention and 1951 Refugee Convention.

The support for the universalist human rights discourse is said to be weakening in our time because of the growing importance of group identities (on a small scale in the form of identity politics and on a larger scale in the form of the return of the nation-state and collective religious identities). It is also claimed that this is an understandable development given that the ideological foundation of the human rights discourse had been weak from the start. While being an understandable reaction against the excessive group identities formulated under Nazism, communism and other totalitarian regimes, human rights are said to ignore the fact that individualism is a relatively recent (Western) phenomenon and that traditionally societies have been composed of communities, not of individuals.

Climate change is resulting in stronger hurricanes, droughts, and flooding that are often fatal.

It is therefore predicted that the challenges facing contemporary society, such as climate change and global inequality, will likely require a solution in which the State is no longer kept at a distance but should again play a central role. It is indeed unclear how the individual-focused human rights mind-set can be of assistance here, as it has primarily been aimed at guaranteeing civil and political rights. Samuel Moyn’s claim in Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, which is echoed by advocacy groups in developing countries, is therefore that guaranteeing a sufficient standard of living should become a focus area of any future human rights agenda. The fight for people’s civil and political rights loses much of its rationale if these same people suffer from gross economic inequality or have their lives imperilled by climate change.

In the follow up to the 70th anniversary of the Declaration, a potentially interesting initiative was started by world leaders and thinkers in the fields of politics, ethics and philosophy. This Global Citizenship Commission ‘set out to develop a common understanding of the meaning of global citizenship – one that arises from basic human rights and empowers every individual in the world’ and therefore issued a document in 2016 offering ‘a 21st-century commentary on the original document, furthering the work of human rights and illuminating the ideal of global citizenship’.

The underlying question of the report is what it means for each of us to be members of a global community. What the Commission says about migration, nationality and statelessness is an accurate and useful summary of where we currently stand, but does not necessarily give new insights. Articles 14 and 15 the Declaration present the right to asylum and to a nationality as a human right by stating that everyone has ‘the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’ and ‘the right to a nationality’, respectively. In urging the international community to implement Sustainable Development Global 10.7 and to consider adopting a new international convention on refugees and migrants, however, the Commission did anticipate the Global Compact for Migration on which the Future Citizen Institute has published extensively.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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