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Sixty years of Human Rights

By Sev Ozdowski - posted Wednesday, 10 December 2008


Today we celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR); a document which set out a new direction for humanity.

Let us go back to December 10, 1948; this was not the best year for human rights.

It was the time of the Berlin blockade by the Soviet army which started on June 24, and finished almost one year later. In December of 1948, western Berliners were almost starving, were without heating coals, and the Western Allies airlift was in full swing. The Iron Curtain was coming down and it was the beginning of Cold War.


It was also when the harsh process of the Stalinisation of Eastern Europe was about to accelerate in countries forcefully incorporated into the Soviet Empire. In 1948 apartheid laws were introduced in South Africa; and much of the world was still under a colonial system with national liberation movements gaining in prominence. In January the same year the modern father of political non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, was assassinated.

Why in such an inhospitable time for human rights was the UDHR born? There are at least two possible answers.

The first one is the power of leadership at the time of Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of the late US president, and of the USA which was seen then as the world’s moral leader. Mrs Roosevelt, with Canadian and French support, was the principal drafter: important contributions were made by people from China, Lebanon, Chile and USSR. Only South Africa was fundamentally opposed to it.

Second, the genesis of UDHR is firmly rooted in the human rights abuses of World War II in which tens of millions died across the world. Particularly abhorrent was the Nazi holocaust and the concentration camps which were, to put it simply, industrial slaughter houses for the efficient killing of humans beings. The guilt associated with the weak response to the holocaust by the Western Allies and Roman-Catholic Church may have also played a role. Then there were the issues of carpet bombing of German cities and of two atomic bombs being dropped on civilian populations.

The general feeling was “never again”. Let us build a world order that would prevent all these atrocities from happening ever again. So in February 1947 the Commission on Human Rights was appointed by the UN to create an “International bill of rights” to apply to every human being regardless of such characteristics as sex, race and religion.

Reaching agreement on the contents of the document was not easy. Member states voted more than 1,400 times on practically every clause of the text. The USSR would not accept the inclusion of freedom of expression and other civil liberties, some Islamic states objected to the articles on equal marriage rights and on the right to change religious belief; and several Western countries criticised the commitment to economic, social and cultural rights seeing them as an introduction of socialism by stealth.


The Universal Declaration

Finally, on December 10, 1948 the UN General Assembly voted (48 in favour; eight abstentions; zero against) in favour of the Universal Declaration. The United Nations recognised that “inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.

The Declaration was a visionary document; a triumph of hope and optimism. It was the first global statement of universal human rights standards; of which we now take for granted.. Article 1 proclaimed that "Everyone is born free and equal in dignity and with rights".

The 30 articles of the UDHR set out in unprecedented detail the standards of dignity, respect and justice to which everyone is entitled: because they are human.

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About the Author

Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM is Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, The University of Sydney and was Australian Human Rights Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner (2000-05).

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