Human Rights Day is celebrated every year on 10 December as a reminder of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). This year marks the 75th anniversary of this amazing document which was the the first global enunciation of human rights and one of the first major achievements of the newly founded United Nations. The theme for Human Rights Day 2023 is ‘Freedom, equality and justice for all’.
After the atrocities of WWII, world leaders recognised the need for a collective expression of human rights. The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the declaration in 1948. It set out a range of rights and freedoms to which everyone, everywhere in the world is entitled.
Having just suffered through a global war, the UN was formed to avoid such a catastrophe from happening again. However, in its preamble, the UDHR foresees situations in which people could “be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression”. Maintaining human rights and democracy was seen as the best prevention of war between nations.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Ban Ki-Moon, UN secretary general, states:
“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains as relevant today as it was on the day in 1948 that it was proclaimed and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. The extraordinary vision and resolve of the drafters produced a document that, for the first time, articulated the rights and freedoms to which every human being is equally and inalienably entitled.”
In the days after WWII, full of hope that the world would ‘never again’ experience the catastrophe of war, the forming of international institutions like the UN and the EEC, predecessor to the EU, were thought to ensure this vision of world peace. The EU has been successful in keeping peace amongst its member states for 70 years.
Members of the Council of Europe used the UDHR to draw up the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This treaty was to secure basic rights both for their own citizens and for other nationalities within their borders. The ECHR was signed in Rome in 1950, ratified by the UK in 1951 and came into force in 1953. Unlike the UN’s UDHR, the ECHR contains rights which can be relied on in a court of law. The European Court on Human Rights overseas the ECHR. All EU countries are members of the Council of Europe which has 46 members. We wrote about the British involvement in the drafting of the ECHR, which is not an EU document.
Human Rights Day 75
Many international institutions and charities have made statements on the anniversary of the UDHR. For Human Rights Day 75, Josep Borrell, the high representative of the EU declared:
“As we mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, humankind is suffering a pandemic of inhumanity. We see wars and regression of human rights. As EU, we are committed to continue to work for these rights for everyone, everywhere.”
Migration and human rights
One of the biggest current issues, migration and the so called refugee crisis was equally faced by the world following WWII. Displacement of people by the destruction of war, food shortages, poverty and persecution in countries ruled by tyrants has been human destiny through history.
Several human rights entitlements regarding refugees have been laid down both in the UDHR and the ECHR. Right to asylum is one of these rights.
When the current government is threatening to leave the ECHR, or bring in a law which allows the UK to ignore the right to asylum in order to deport people to Rwanda, it is breaking international law. Leaving the EU does not entitle the UK to act in contravention of the Council of Europe’s ECHR, especially one that is based on the UN Convention globally recognised as the standard setter on human rights.
Human rights are British values
The UK has been a leading voice on the world stage calling on tyrannies like Belarus and North Korea to respect human rights. In fact, Amnesty International is based in the UK. It was founded in London in 1961 by the lawyer Peter Benenson in what he called ‘The Forgotten Prisoners’ and ‘An Appeal for Amnesty’, which appeared on the front page of the British newspaper The Observer. Benenson had previously been a founding member of the UK law reform organisation JUSTICE. What started off as a campaign for amnesty for political prisoners, has become a world wide organisation fighting for human rights across the globe.
The national and international milestones that have shaped the concept of human rights in England, Scotland and Wales are listed here.
When current media are taking about ‘British values’ but at the same time support the deportation of asylum seekers to a country known for human rights abuses, they ignore the very values Britain has held dear for 800 years. On Human Rights Day, the UK has reason to celebrate its leadership on human rights through its great politicians and lawyers through history. Going back to Magna Carta in 1215, the idea that human beings should have a set of basic rights and freedoms has deep roots in Britain.
Let us remember and ensure that no British government is allowed to destroy our proud tradition of human rights.