Francesca Klug, Visiting Professor at LSE Human Rights, reflects on 70 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its relevance today.

10 December 2018 will mark the 70th birthday of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted in 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations, in the wake of World War II. Today – in the midst of a new age of nationalism and rule by ‘strongmen’ – the influence and impact of the UDHR and its progeny have been tested almost to destruction.

So the Declaration’s 70th anniversary year seems an apt time to ask the question: the UDHR – rejuvenate it or retire it?

The case for retirement is not difficult to construct. If the UDHR is viewed as a product of a ‘never again’ moment at the end of World War II, aimed at eliminating human rights abuses world-wide, then it has self-evidently been a failure, and has already effectively retired itself.

But the case for the rejuvenation of the UDHR is premised on a different argument. Even at their most optimistic, the UDHR drafters didn’t imagine they’d eliminate state oppression and human cruelty. They chiefly set out to craft ‘a big idea’ – a set of common standards and values – to help shape the way the world was viewed in the new era they believed was dawning.

Their central contention was that we are ‘all members of the human family’, as the very first sentence of the Declaration’s Preamble puts it and that ‘Freedom, justice and peace in the world’ are founded on equal dignity and human rights. Their central aim was to fortify everyone (not just states) to recognise when such norms are breached and speak out or stand up to defend them.

Although the UDHR is not in itself legally binding, it has become the procreator of modern international human rights law, providing safeguards – and sometimes lifelines – for thousands of people from all walks of life when national laws fail them, including here in the UK.

It has parented 16 UN human rights treaties that are legally binding, including the twin UN Covenants spanning economic, social and cultural and civil and political rights respectively, plus a host of regional treaties in Africa, the Americas and Europe. These include the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), mostly incorporated into our law through the Human Rights Act (HRA) in 1998. The HRA, which celebrates its 20th birthday this year, was intended to ‘bring rights home’ by making 16 fundamental rights directly enforceable in UK law. But, in the spirit of the UDHR, rather than just being solely about ensuring compliance through litigation, the HRA was intended to have a much broader impact and create a culture of respect for human rights across public authorities in the UK. A whole host of actors (not just the courts) were to play a role in helping create this culture and ensure public services were treating people with dignity and respect.

We now take for granted that such human rights standards can be used to hold our governments and services to account. But just 70 years ago there were no internationally recognised human rights norms at all.

For many years now the British Institute of Human Rights has been working with public bodies to promote understanding of, and compliance with, such norms. For example, when BIHR supported a dementia service to use human rights in their work, a senior dementia practitioner said:

“I was able to challenge poor practice around planning the care pathway of a client using a human rights approach. The client’s own wishes to live in her own home were not given appropriate weight and thinking about the range of human rights involved meant she was given a much more dignified, respectful pathway to be supported to live in her own home.” Lisa, senior dementia practitioner

BIHR have also been supporting advocacy groups to use human rights to challenge poor practice in public services. For example, when Lorraine was told she’d have to use a bucket as a toilet in her room in a mental health hospital, her advocate used the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment to ask the hospital staff to re-think their decision. This right can be traced to the UDHR and is further reflected in Article 3 of the HRA, meaning Lorraine could use this internationally agreed standard to ensure she was treated with dignity by the hospital.

As these examples illustrate, human beings don’t have to have heard of the UDHR, let alone to have read it, to have absorbed its norms, aspects of which, when promoted by human rights defenders like BIHR, have seeped into discourse and practice here in the UK and in countries all over the globe.

This speaks to the UDHR’s prime purpose. It is to humans that the Declaration firstly speaks and to ‘every individual and every organ of society’ whose promotion of ‘these rights and freedoms’ is vital for their ‘full realisation’, as the Preamble declares. The UDHR is still relevant 70 years on but it is down to us all, in other words, to promote its ethical vision as new forms of nationalism and populism challenge our world.

Francesca Klug is a Visiting Professor at LSE Human Rights. Her most recent book, A Magna Carta for all Humanity: homing in on human rights was published by Routledge in 2015. Francesca delivered a lecture at the LSE on the UDHR at 70, which is available to listen to as a podcast..