Neve: Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70 – Seven decades of betrayal, but also of hope

Protests against the government of Saudi Arabia at the Human Rights Monument in Ottawa in 2017. Ashley Fraser / Postmedia

Seventy years ago, world leaders committed to what was at once both an urgent set of promises and a compelling dream when the newly formed United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today, International Human Rights Day, as we mark that platinum anniversary, in many ways the Universal Declaration has never had more meaning.

In a world that reels with horrific atrocities in so many countries and in which the ugly politics of hate and demonization have swept far too many leaders into office, the drive and passion to secure truly global human rights protection grows more vital and dynamic.

That is not just wishful thinking.

Of course, there is no denying that those universal promises and dreams are still cruelly beyond reach. Ask the people of Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Gaza or Venezuela about rights protection when faced with the daily fear of just staying alive. Ask refugees and migrants about journeys to safety at the U.S. border or across the Mediterranean, that are increasingly more dangerous and inhospitable than the perils they fled in the first place. Ask Indigenous Peoples, across Canada and around the world, about entrenched racism that consistently sells their rights out to economic interests.

FILE – In this photo, homeless children stand on the road from Khoukha to Taiz in Yemen. Envoys from Yemen’s warring parties are headed to Sweden for another round of peace talks to stop the three-year-old war, but with few incentives to compromise, expectations are low for little more than improving a faltering de-escalation. Nariman El-Mofty / AP

Equally worrying, the importance of those universal promises and dreams has likely never been more urgent. At the top of that list is the International Panel on Climate Change’s sobering 12-year deadline to get carbon emissions under control, perhaps the most fundamental human rights challenge of our time. Think also of the disgraceful wealth gaps that continue to widen in so many countries, and the punishing toll for the rights of one billion people who live in extreme poverty.

The importance of those universal promises and dreams has likely never been more urgent.

But for each of those injustices, threats and tragedies there is resistance. There are resilient and imaginative solutions. And everywhere, in numbers vast and small, people mobilize and take action to uphold human rights – their own and the rights of strangers they will never know – with certainty and courage unimaginable back in 1948.

We need look no further than the tenacity of women human rights defenders, everywhere. Women who have paid with their lives in Brazil and Honduras, who are behind bars in Saudi Arabia and Iran, and who are harassed and attacked in South Africa, India and Ukraine, but who do not relent or remain silent. And who never give up on the universal dream. Their cases are at the heart of Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign this year.

Dec. 10, 1948. The world was emerging from the blood-soaked Second World War and staggering to grasp the scale and depravity of the Holocaust.

Leaders knew that the way forward did not lie in more warfare and divisiveness, nor in resignation and complacency. Instead, in the Universal Declaration’s opening lines they forged agreement that “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.”

Over the seven decades since, governments have tripped over themselves putting ever more eloquent human rights words to paper. They have drafted international treaties and declarations too numerous to count. They have enshrined stirring human rights pledges in national constitutions and laws in countries that span the globe. They have established courts, commissions, committees and councils to be the guardians of those promises.

All of that matters.

But what matters most is that we join together in a global chorus that grows only stronger and more determined, insisting that human rights come first. Come first in upholding gender equality, respecting our environment, doing business, and ensuring security. Come first in what we expect of our governments. And in how we view and treat each other.

Years ago, a remarkable woman, a trade unionist whose life was at risk and who was often in hiding in Zimbabwe, shared words with me that capture the essence of this day. Even while she was in such danger, she was determined to take action for other activists. As she noted, “if I do not show that I care about their rights, why would I expect them to care about mine?”

“Universal” does not only mean that we all share in enjoyment of those rights. It means we all share the responsibility to defend them.

Alex Neve is Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada.

Published in the Ottawa Citizen December 10, 2018…