Why Have We Stopped Implementing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Comment: Written by Bridgette Lane.

December 10th 2016 celebrated International Human Rights Day, commemorating the day when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948. The UDHR was a highly significant cornerstone of the modern human rights movement, and with the current state of affairs it is as relevant today as the day it was adopted – so why are so many countries continuing to abuse it?  

The first article of the Declaration states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”, however, 78 years later this is not the situation many people around the world find themselves in. There is no country that has provided full access to human rights, and human rights are denied to people around the world on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, birthplace and age. A key part of the UDHR is that every person is eligible, however, today that is still a concept that is challenged by some.

Looking back at the human rights situation of 2015, the director of the Human Rights Watch, Kevin Roth, stated that “fear stood behind many of the big human rights developments of the past year”. This quote was taken from HRW’s 2016 World Report, which argued that in 2015 a dangerous rhetoric emerged in the West in response to the refugee crisis and the rise of the so-called Islamic State. Additionally, there was an increase in autocratic regimes globally. It will be interesting to read their analysis of 2016, although I doubt that it will say anything positive. Instead 2016 has seen a continuation in the decrease of human rights, and this looks set to continue in 2017.

An ever-growing list of abuses  

The year of 2016 has been a tough year for human rights defenders around the world. The rise of fear and identity driven politics in Western democracies has placed women, LGBTQ and minority rights under serious threat in the forthcoming Donald Trump Presidency. Furthermore, Great Britain currently has a Prime Minister who wants to the leave the European Convention of Human Rights, and France and Turkey have suspended the Convention due to states of emergency. While Poland recently sought to limit women’s access to abortion.

In Burma/Myanmar, the state has been accused of ethnically cleansing the Rohingya People in Rakhine State. While in the Philippines, mass deaths have occurred due to a state-sponsored crackdown on drugs. Furthermore, mass graves have been found in areas once controlled by the so-called Islamic State, and the destruction of East Aleppo by the Assad regime appears nearly complete.

As 2016 comes to an end, our hopes were dashed in Gambia, where there appeared to be positive news. The recent presidential election was heralded as a success for human rights, with the dictatorial President conceding defeat, however, he has recently stated that he rescinds that decision.

These are only some of the headlines of human rights abuses in 2016, as there are too many human rights abuses in the world to list here. If you want to know the full extent I would suggest reading the upcoming 2017 World Report by HRW, however, I would warn that it is likely to be very long. Unfortunately, 2016 feels worse than 2015, and this trend does not look set to be ending in the new year.

A push for change

All may look depressing but it does not mean that one has to accept the current situation. There are numerous international, regional and local human rights organisations that provide advocacy and raise awareness of abuses, serving as a check on government bodies around the world.

As individuals we can also take action to make sure that we do not accept the status quo, especially in countries with the right to freedom of speech and expression. There are numerous avenues open to stand up for human rights, for example contacting ones elected representative, protesting, taking part in viral campaigns or just by being vocal about human rights to those we know. Being active does ensure that human rights are protected, as can be clearly seen in Poland, where the proposed ban on abortion was defeated after mass protests.

International Human Rights Day should be a reminder to us all that we need to stand up for our rights and for the rights of those who are unable to. Human rights abuses do not and should not be accepted as part of normal life. We must not let the current decline in human rights continue to be an ongoing trend.

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