/ 10 December 2022

10 December marks two anniversaries: South Africa’s Constitution and Universal Declaration of Human Rights

French President of Council Vincent Auriol pronounces a speech during the opening ceremony of the third United Nations Assembly at the close of which, on December 10, 1948, was adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP

When the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948, it was a revolutionary moment. 

For the first time in history, all nations came together to agree on a common set of human rights standards, applicable to all human beings, everywhere. 

The Declaration emphasised rights and freedoms that were universal, indivisible, interrelated, interdependent and inalienable, and recognised the equality, dignity and worth of every person.

On Saturday, 10 December, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will launch a year-long campaign to promote and recognise the 75th anniversary of the Declaration, which will be celebrated on 10 December 2023. 

The campaign will focus on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a unifying force and its potential to transform lives, bring peace, and build consensus by focusing on its legacy, relevance and activism. The slogan is “Dignity, Freedom, and Justice for All.” 

In South Africa, 10 December also marks the signing into law of the country’s Constitution. This commemorative convergence was a global symbol by Nelson Mandela. 

He chose to sign the Constitution into law on International Human Rights Day to show that just as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged out of two brutal world wars, the South African Constitution could be a uniting force as the country emerged out of a dark and violent past.

The Declaration has stood the test of time

Since the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, human rights have advanced. We know that human rights are the catalyst to progress because they have already shown their potential. The rights of women, children, young people, persons with disabilities and migrants have been inscribed in law and discrimination has been challenged. Large swathes of the world are no longer under colonial rule and repressive regimes. 

The Declaration embodies the values of many globally revered icons who have fought for social justice. It has inspired social movements for stronger human rights protection. 

In the 48 years between the adoption of the Declaration and the signing of the South African Constitution into law, the Declaration galvanised millions of its people to continue to fight against racism and colonialism and to stand for freedom and equality. 

The universality of the rights in the declaration was evident in those fighting against the apartheid regime in South Africa. They were part of a global movement for freedom and justice. The Freedom Charter, which greatly influenced the Constitution, took inspiration from the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today, South Africa’s Constitution is internationally acclaimed as one of the most progressive in the world and its Bill of Rights is a near mirror image of the declaration.

A beacon of light

The promise of the Declaration, of dignity and equality in rights, is under attack. The climate crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, increasing conflicts, economic instability, misinformation, racial injustice, rising inequality and global setbacks on women’s rights are all challenges that require us to reorient ourselves with the Declaration. 

Many people are exasperated and have lost faith in programmes and policies and the perceived inaction of governments and institutions that are meant to protect human rights. 

Guided by the Declaration, we need to renew the social contract between governments and the people and within societies. The values inherent in the Declaration will help us rebuild trust and embrace a common agenda on the road to a just and sustainable development.

The Declaration an enabler of activism 

New movements, young activists and bold leaders continue to challenge the status quo and rekindle the spirit of the Declaration, with new ideas to protect and promote human rights. 

The Declaration remains an enabler of activism. The articles of the Declaration find expression in the #MeToo and #TotalShutDown movement’s fight against gender-based violence and femicide; the call for radical climate action to protect the environment and livelihoods; the demands by young people for improved service delivery and dignified living conditions; and the unwavering conviction of human rights defenders who risk their lives for others.  

Emboldened by our solidarity and common purpose, we must continue to work together to give the Declaration new life and to realise the fast-approaching target for 2030 sustainable development goals. 

Today, as the sun sets on the 25th anniversary year of South Africa’s Constitution that has established a society based on democratic values, it rises on 75 years of the Declaration that was, is and will become a torchbearer of equality, freedom, and dignity for generations to come. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the South African Constitution are proof that it is within our power as humans to solve the greatest crises of our time if our solutions are rooted in human rights.

Let dignity, freedom and justice reign. 

Abigail Noko is the regional representative for Southern Africa at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.