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What does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights mean in today’s fractured world?


“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” These simple but powerful words are the first line of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations at an extraordinary meeting in Paris 70 years ago this week.

But, do they mean anything today for a child in Yemen whose school has been bombed, or a rape survivor in South Sudan, or dissidents from Russia or Saudi Arabia living in fear of abduction and assassination?

And what do they offer for the next generation of leaders, who see many people currently in power in their countries downgrading or demeaning the importance of human rights as national and international politics are increasingly driven by polarisation and populism?

I believe the 70th anniversary of the declaration is a critical moment to reaffirm its values and guarantee its continued relevance.

This means engaging global citizens, listening to the victims of human rights abuses and advocating policies that protect their rights by holding leaders to account.

Let us be blunt: talk is cheap. Although fine words will be spoken this week to mark the declaration’s anniversary, millions of innocent civilians face devastating famine in Yemen because of the ongoing blockade of that country’s ports and land borders by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition.

The UN has warned that half of Yemen’s population — 14-million people out of 28-million – is at risk of famine, while the charity Save The Children estimates that some 85 000 children under the age of five have died from acute malnutrition brought on by the war since 2015.

This constitutes an appalling violation of their collective human rights, and is further disturbing evidence of the use of famine as a weapon of war as already witnessed in Syria and South Sudan.

The permanent members of the UN security council must act with urgency and good faith on all these conflicts if their pious declarations are not to ring hollow.

For Yemen, this must involve the United States, the United Kingdom and France putting real pressure on their regional allies driving the conflict, including the suspension of arms sales, and showing full support for the UN-led peace efforts that offer the only way to a durable and just resolution.

Yemen is just one grotesque example of continued human rights abuses. From Palestine to the Central African Republic, Eritrea to Myanmar and Venezuela to Syria, countless women, men and children have their rights denied and are subject to arbitrary detention, torture, sexual assault and murder.

Tyrants and dictators are further emboldened when democratic leaders abjure their responsibilities to uphold human rights and international law in favour of either cynical isolationism or cowardly short-termism.

The endemic lack of trust in public institutions we have observed in the decade since the global financial crisis means there is a very real threat of human rights being overturned, because those who supposedly speak for the people see them as an impediment to their grip on power and personal enrichment.

Understanding the historical context behind the declaration’s genesis in 1948, in all its complexity, is essential to preserving its legacy and guaranteeing its endurance.

It was born out of the devastation of World War II, the atrocity of the Holocaust and the determination — as seen in the contemporaneous Nuremburg Trials — to create new instruments to deliver justice and protect rights and freedoms.

Above all the declaration is a global text, informed by the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man as well as the African notion of ubuntu — eloquently explained by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as meaning “my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours”.

But, the declaration’s power has always depended on the political will of leaders to uphold it, and not just pay hypocritical lip service to its noble aspirations.

The past seven decades offer countless depressing examples of the latter.

In the same year the declaration was signed, South Africa started the process of codifying their brutal apartheid regime; Palestinians were dispossessed en masse in the nakba linked to the founding of the State of Israel; and Britain and France were engaged in military conflicts around the globe to try to preserve their colonial empires.

To paraphrase George Orwell, many of the leaders who signed the declaration in 1948 clearly felt that all humans’ rights are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Human rights for the victims of colonialism, racism and other forms of discrimination, from sexism and homophobia to structural impoverishment and class prejudice, have only ever been won by the struggle of brave activists at the grassroots.

This was the path taken by Nelson Mandela, who fought all his life to secure freedom and justice in South Africa. Twenty years ago, he addressed the UN general assembly to mark the 50th anniversary of the declaration. While hailing the power of its words, he challenged his fellow world leaders that the “failure to achieve this vision … results from the acts of commission and omission, particularly by those who occupy positions of leadership in politics and the economy and in other spheres of human activity”.

His words still ring true down the years, and should inspire all of us to hold our leaders to account, and to take responsibility for our own actions as global citizens.

I remain convinced that together, we can deliver the freedom at the heart of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, both today and for future generations.

Graça Machel, the former first education minister of Mozambique, is deputy chair of The Elders

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