Tuesday, December 11, 2007

60 years of human rights

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,


That's the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed 60 years ago yesterday. The declaration is the UN General Assembly's view of the minimum human rights which should be enjoyed by all. These include freedom of speech, fredom of religion, free elections, freedom from torture and slavery, fair trials and equality under the law and some basic social, cultural and economic rights (including rights to education and "the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family"). It has since become one of the foundations of international human rights law. But sixty years on, the values expressed by the UDHR are under attack. In the USA, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, fundamental rights are being eroded in the name of fighting terrorism or being "tough" on immigration. One country - the USA - has fallen so far it has legalised torture, while others turn a blind eye.

The lesson is simple: if we want our governments to respect human rights, we need to stand up for them. Even when those targetted are people we despise, we need to stand up for them - because the rights of any are the rights of all, and the freedoms taken from the weak today may be taken from us tomorrow. As Pastor Niemöller famously pointed out, if we don't speak up for others, there may be no-one left to speak up for us.