Education International
Education International

Enduring relevance 60 years on

published 16 January 2009 updated 16 January 2009

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...

With these ringing phrases begins the most significant document in the history of modern humanity’s struggle to define its noblest self and its vision for a better future. This chapter began one afternoon in 1948, when a Canadian law professor named John Humphrey met with Eleanor Roosevelt, the former First Lady of the United States. Over tea, they discussed how to write what she called “the international Magna Carta of all mankind.” Humphrey went back to his room at the Lido Beach Hotel on Long Island and began working night and day. In one solid week, he wrote the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “I don’t pretend to have been a Thomas Jefferson,” Humphrey told me in 1984, in an interview from his office at McGill University in Montreal. “The declaration really has no one father. But I did include a lot of things I especially cared about.” Freedom of the press, the status of women and racial discrimination were key areas of work during Humphrey's distinguished 20-year career at the UN. Other drafters of the Declaration came from all regions of the world and all legal and religious traditions but, despite his modesty, today Humphrey is acknowledged as the principal author of the magnificent document which came into effect 60 years ago. On the night of 10 December 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a unanimous vote. In a post-Holocaust world painfully aware of man’s atrocious capacity for inhumanity, it was a poignant statement of hope and a shared commitment to global peace, social justice and human dignity. 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 ... The Universal Declaration proclaims that all human beings are born free and equal; that everyone everywhere has the right to life, liberty and security of person; the right to equality before the law; the right to seek asylum from persecution; the right to a nationality; to freedom of speech, of religion, of movement, and of assembly. It asserts that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention, torture or slavery. The Declaration also enshrines the right to education; the right to work, and to just and favourable conditions of work; the right to form and join trade unions; the right to a healthy standard of living and to social security; and the right to rest and leisure, among others. Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. I first learned about the Universal Declaration as a young journalist covering efforts by the then-government of my home province of British Columbia, in Western Canada, to implement a “restraint program” that would dramatically slash public spending, cut the civil service, and cripple the public sector unions. Part of the plan was also to undermine civil rights protection by abolishing the human rights branch and commission, gutting the relevant laws, and firing the staff members who implemented them. In the ensuing months of controversy, reporting the news was like taking a crash course in human rights activism. Rights defenders across the country raised their voices in passionate condemnation of the new weakened Human Rights Act, which they described as “a fascist law,” a “sham,” a “disgrace,” and even “a green light to racists and bigots.” They insisted that the government’s actions were in violation of the Universal Declaration, both in spirit and in substance. The provincial government claimed that the Declaration was not legally binding, but scholars like Humphrey disagreed vehemently. “It has been invoked so many times, both in and out of the UN, that it has become part of international law, of the customary law of nations,” he said. In that sense, he added, it is “a much, much greater achievement than I could have hoped for in 1948.” Article 2: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status... On the 60th anniversary of the Declaration, it is time to look back and reflect upon the progress that has been made by the international human rights movement. The scope and depth of human rights law has grown to include conventions on the rights of the child, of indigenous people, and of people with disabilities, as well as conventions against torture, enforced disappearance and genocide. The rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people are protected today in ways that would have been unimaginable in 1948. Roosevelt, an ardent feminist, would have heartily approved of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The CEDAW came into force in 1981 and is vigorously invoked by women’s rights activists worldwide. However, decades later, half of the world's population of girls and women still face daily discrimination throughout their life cycle. Millions of impoverished children labour in unspeakable conditions. Trade unionists risk their lives to assert union rights. Teachers are increasingly targeted for attack. Indeed, around the world we still see inequity, injustice and pervasive violations of human and trade union rights. Has the Universal Declaration really made a difference over the past 60 years? Most people would say yes, it has. Not all governments have become parties to all human rights treaties, but all countries have accepted the Universal Declaration. It continues to affirm the inherent dignity and worth of every person in the world, without distinction of any kind. Millions more people have been made aware of their inherent rights, and therefore are more willing and able to take action in defence of those rights. And as we struggle to create a better world, it is helpful to have our hopes and dreams articulated in such a poetic and powerful form that is accessible to all. In 366 languages, the Declaration holds the Guinness World Record for the most translated document in the world. A Caribbean teacher and human rights activist once said to me: “The Universal Declaration is like a prayer.” In a globalised world fractured along economic, cultural, gender and religious lines, it is ever more important that we emphasize the things that unite us, and that express our common humanity and universal values. By Nancy Knickerbocker

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 28, December 2008.