Whether political talking point or respected institution, human rights are certainly one of the most talked about topics today. That they were developed more than 50 years ago and remain an important aspect of life shows just how important – or to some, how controversial – human rights really are.
A Mail Online article with the title “Human Rights and an Affront to Justice” demonstrates the debate regarding human rights in our country. Institutions like the European Court of Human Rights are both praised and pilloried by a range of political and social commentators.
Take an international focus on human rights, however, and there’s little in the way of criticism. At last year’s Conservative Party conference in Manchester, the foreign secretary William Hague made clear the UK’s support of human rights, saying:
“Human rights defenders languishing in then prisons of repressive regimes are not forgotten because of British NGOs.”
In many parts of the world where human rights are not respected, from the Central African Republic to North Korea, defending human rights is a battle fought beside the defence of decency, compassion and democracy.
The history of human rights
Although the human rights we use as a yardstick for decent behaviour today were developed in 1948, human rights have a history that extends back far beyond the 1940s.
All of the world’s major religions – from Christianity and Judaism to Buddhism and Islam – expressed and explored the importance of treating other humans with the dignity and respect that they deserve. The Ten Commandments – an essential part of Western Christian morality – is in itself a list of basic human rights.
When human rights are ignored, the result tends to be war and terror. It is telling that today’s human rights were established in the wake of the Second World War, during which millions of people lost their lives through warfare, genocide and the starvation and disease that the war produced.
Adopted by the United Nations National Assembly in 1948 – just three years after the end of World War II – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains the most important document outlining people’s basic rights today.
Changes and additions to the 1948 document
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights marked an important moment in the development of human rights. In the years since, numerous developments have taken place in order to further cement the importance of human rights in all nations of the world.
In 1948, 51 members states of the United Nations signed the declaration. Today, an astounding 192 member states belong to the United Nations and respect the human rights it pioneered. Institutions within the UN, including the International Court of Justice, work hard to maintain and uphold the rights laid out in 1948.
Beyond the original rights outlined in the 1948 declaration, additional documents have been created by the UN in order to extend human rights. In 1990, the United Nations passed the Convention of the Rights of the Child. The UN Security Council has made efforts to reduce suffering and calm tension in areas affected by war and oppression.
An example of the UN’s involvement in upholding human rights is its involvement in working as a watchdog during the Syrian conflict. Optimistic people could even say that the mere existence and continual work of the UN is evidence that progress has been made in strengthening human rights since 1948.
In the UK, human rights were codified into law in by the Human Rights Act of 1998, in addition to the European Union’s court to uphold human rights. In some cases, a debate has emerged on the topic of human rights that exemplifies the conflict of nationalism against internationalism.
What right do organisations such as the United Nations, which represents many of the world’s countries, have to influence the affairs of individual nations? Questions such as this continue to influence political debate in many countries, including the United Kingdom.
Have human rights improved since 1948?
In many ways, human rights have stagnated – and in some cases, even regressed – in the years since 1948. Many countries, from North Korea to Afghanistan – put human rights behind other priorities and continue to ignore them. There remains a massive amount of economic inequality around the world, as well as limited access to vital things such as water and medicine.
In many parts of the world, women still struggle to enjoy basic rights that men are granted without question. Genocide, particularly between warring tribes, remains an uncomfortable and troubling issue. There are many statistics showing that the progress made in human rights hasn’t necessarily been worldwide.
Take, for example, the more than 64 million people that live in extreme poverty. Or the one in every eight sub-Saharan African children that die before age five. Or the one billion people estimated to go hungry without their necessary caloric intake every day.
In the 60-plus years since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the fundamental rights granted to people remain the same. What is challenging is also the same. How can human rights – from economic rights to the political – be respected, enforced and upheld around the world?
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Photo credit: D. Sharon Pruitt