In this joint blog, Mia Hasenson-Gross (Executive Director of René Cassin) and Helen Wildbore (Senior Human Rights Officer at BIHR) reflect on 70 years of universal human rights

70 years ago the world was a very different place. The world had emerged from World War II and was trying to recover from the atrocities that had taken place, revealed in devastating reality as the war ended. Following years of discrimination and persecution of groups, including disabled people, gay people and Jewish people, the world was coming to terms with the scale of the oppression. It was a moment to come together and say ‘never again’. The response of the world community, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, was to create a modern human rights instrument to protect the rights of all people: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The preamble to the UDHR stated that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”. The purpose of the UDHR was to set out a vision about the kind of world that was possible. A world where the “inherent dignity…of all members of the human family” is the foundation of justice and peace, where people treat each other in a “spirit of brotherhood” (it’s a shame they left out ‘sisterhood’, but it was 1948 after all). The language was poetic and visionary. This is testament to the drafters, who were not just the usual suspects of lawyers and diplomats but included philosophers and religious leaders.

René Cassin

Others shared Eleanor Roosevelt’s vision, including the namesake of the René Cassin organisation, Monsieur René Cassin, one of the co-drafters of the UDHR, and famously known as the “Father of the UDHR”. Cassin, a French Jew and human rights lawyer had lost 25 members of his family during the Holocaust; he himself had fled German-occupied Paris in June 1940, arriving in London “without knowing what he would do there and without knowing a word of English”. His work there for the ‘Free French’ government-in-waiting earned him a death sentence from the collaborationist Vichy government in France.

Cassin later served as Vice-President (1959-1965) and President (1965-1968) of the European Court of Human Rights. Allée René Cassin (a street in Ostwald, France) is named after him, to recognise his important contribution to human rights advocacy. His contribution to building a better, brighter world was recognised when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968 on the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the UDHR.

Today, as the organisation that bears his name, René Cassin strives to bring a perspective and authority born of Jewish experience to the crucial debate on the future of human rights in the UK and beyond.

Still relevant today?

As the UDHR celebrates its 70th anniversary, what, you might ask, is its relevance today? Part of its enduring legacy is its continuing popularity. It is the most translated document in the world. Global leaders continue to extol its virtues; Barack Obama called its universal principles “beacons to guide us and the foundations for building a more just and stable world”. Nelson Mandela called the UDHR “a sudden ray of hope at one of our darkest moments”, being past in the same year that apartheid was formally introduced in South Africa.

Perhaps its most significant legacy is the numerous human rights legal instruments it has inspired. This includes the UK’s own Human Rights Act, whose rights can be traced back to the UDHR. Crucially the Human Rights Act also enshrines the UDHR’s principle of universality, protecting the rights of all people in the UK.

Celebrating 70 years of universal human rights

We think this is cause to celebrate. So this year the British Institute of Human Rights is celebrating 70 years of universal human rights, and their protection in the UK via the Human Rights Act. You can add your voice to help us mark this landmark anniversary by signing our birthday card to the UDHR. We will deliver the card to the United Nations and to the UK Parliament on Human Rights Day (10 December). Throughout March we also running community events across the country and sharing a series of blogs and stories of how human rights have helped bring about positive change in everyday lives. Browse our website to find out more and add your voice to ensure our leaders hear loud and clear that universal human rights are as relevant today as they were in 1948.

René Cassin, the Jewish voice for human rights, will be marking this anniversary year with a series of events and activities including high level speaking events, working with youth movements and communities and special film screening. Our first event will take place on 20th March at Bevis Marks Synagogue where will embark on an evening of cheese, wine and stimulating conversations celebrating 70 years since the UDHR. Follow us on our website, Twitter or Instagram to make sure you get all the latest updates on our UDHR anniversary programme.

Mia Hasenson-Gross, Executive Director, René Cassin

Helen Wildbore, Senior Human Rights Officer, British Institute of Human Rights