Sixty years ago, on December 10 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as the basis for human development following six years of destructive and catastrophic world war. Many of the rights set out in the UDHR, however, remain aspirations for the vast majority and are routinely trampled upon by state bodies.
The UDHR preamble says: “Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”
Yet today, for example, the New Labour government is publishing proposals to penalise the most vulnerable and the poorest in society, who are dependent on state welfare benefits to keep them from absolute poverty despite the fact that Article 22 declares: “Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security…”
Article 12 states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks." In Britain, state surveillance is routine through CCTV, email monitoring, stop and search and countless other intrusions.
Article 5 says “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and article 9 declares that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile”. Tell that to the American and British governments, who have carried out “extraordinary rendition” – kidnapping – of people, tortured them and then shipped them off to Guantanamo. Or to the dictatorial Russian government, which routinely picks up opponents and tortures Chechens and others fighting for their rights.
Article 30 states: "Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.” So how come the United States and Britain have invaded Iraq and occupied Afghanistan?
Other aspects of UDHR say that everyone has the “right to work”, to “just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment”. The global capitalist crisis means, however, that jobs are disappearing at a phenomenal rate in every country and “protection” from loss of a job is non-existent. Article 25 says that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care”. One in six of the world’s population subsists on a dollar a day.
The UDHR brought together a number of political and social rights (although not self-determination) which were themselves the result of countless struggles. The UDHR importantly reflected the achievements of the French Revolution of 1798 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. The UDHR also expressed the fact that the colonial period was coming to an end and that the Soviet Union was now as powerful militarily as the United States.
The UDHR is still worth struggling for, but how? As we move towards 2009, there is a new global catastrophe on the horizon which takes the shape of a slump, global warming, authoritarian rule and the tendency towards military conflict. More and more aspects of the UDHR will be trampled into the dust until we create wholly democratic, new state systems in place of what we live under today.
AWTW communications editor