Sixty-nine years ago this week — on 10 December 1948 — the newly formed General Assembly of the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR; res. GA217A). It could not have been more timely or urgent. Not half way through the 20th century, the world had experienced two world wars in which tens of millions of people — mostly civilians — were killed; it had experienced the Armenian genocide in the Middle East; it had witnessed the Holocaust of Jews in Europe and the dropping of two atomic bombs. CNEWA, in many ways, is a product of this century, one that has been called the century of “megadeath,” and our work is inextricably bound to those still suffering the aftershocks of so much war and slaughter.
The United Nations itself was the result of nations recognizing that wars and killings on this scale must not be allowed to continue. Something new needed to be created which could promote peace and restrain killing, especially of civilians.
In 1946, at the first session of the General Assembly, a draft document was prepared to complement the UN Charter and to guarantee the lives of rights of the peoples of the world. A preliminary draft was send to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) for refinement. ECOSOC set up a Committee on Human Rights consisting of 18 people from around the world. The driving spirit behind the Committee was its only woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The draft was accepted by the General Assembly two years later (1948).
The UDHR attempted to “set a common standard of achievements for all people and all nations (setting out) for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected…” As such, the UDHR became the basis on which international law was built in the 20th century.
The Preamble recognizes “…the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all the human family” as “the foundation of justice and peace in the world.”
There were far fewer founding members of the UN in 1946 — only 51 — than the present 193 member states of the General Assembly. However, the UDHR, though often attacked and often ignored, remains the basis for the role of the UN in the world.
The UDHR is celebrated every year on 10 December. In a real sense it is a living document and continually evolving, as the nations of the world recognize new rights — such as the right to protection. The original UDHR contained 30 Articles delineating what the particular human rights are. As the notion of Human Rights has grown, members states agree to uphold different conventions (like treaties) protecting the expanding rights of their citizens.
It would be naïve in the extreme to think that each and every member state of the UN recognizes, much less protects, all the rights in the UDHR, even though the nations have signed protocols to protect those rights. Although the coercive power of the UN is extremely limited, it has considerable moral power. One of the ways it holds member states accountable is the Universal Periodic Revue (UPR) presented the UN Human Rights Committee. This, according to the UN, is:
“ …a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States. The UPR is a State-driven process, under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, which provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfil their human rights obligations. As one of the main features of the Council, the UPR is designed to ensure equal treatment for every country when their human rights situations are assessed.”
Every five years member states report to the Committee on how they have fulfilled their obligations to the conventions they have signed and on the state of human rights in their countries.
This is also a time when non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often present reports critical of the country under periodic review. In very many instances, the NGOs are the (unwanted) conscience of the country being reviewed — keeping it honest and pointing out failures the country may not want to admit.
The UN is often — and often enough, justifiably — criticized for many things. It is not a strong organization in the sense that it has little or no authority to force a nation to do something or to refrain from something. However, for all its weaknesses and failures, the UN stands as a monument of — and perhaps the only present instrument for attaining — the highest and noblest possibilities open to the planet: a place of peace, justice and responsibility; a place where the common good is promoted and the rights of all protected.