The mysterious appeal of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Barbara Oomen

Afb blog Barbara

If there is one issue that, as a human rights scholar, has puzzled me for years it is the continued popularity of the UN 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Permanently referring back to the UDHR, it seems to me, is like continuing to use an old Nokia when the Iphone X has just come out. Legally, we have come so far since that first non-binding Declaration stating 30 rights and the underlying principles. A Declaration, not a Treaty. An act of engagement, but not the actual marriage contract – as our colleague Fried van Hoof liked to put it. Ever since 1948, we’ve carefully and painstakingly constructed a whole architecture of binding treaties, monitoring bodies, special rapporteurs, and regional courts. Why do we continue to dig beneath all of that to draw attention to the foundation of human rights instead of simply focusing on the whole shiny construction?

This was a question underlying many of the conversations with and by Utrecht University colleagues at the annual conference of the Association of Human Rights Institute (AHRI) hosted by the University of Edinburgh last month. Whereas the magnificent old college hall with its thick stone walls, red carpets, rows of law reviews, and oil paintings of the great minds of the past staring out all breathed tradition, the theme was “Renewing Rights in Times of Transition”. A theme that was taken seriously by the large UU contingent. Janneke Gerards discussed a fluid conception of human rights. Antoine Buyse critically considered the shrinking of civic space. Julie Fraser searched for cultural narratives supporting human rights protection. Elif Durmus, in line with our Cities of Refuge project, focused on human rights and cities. Alexandra Timmer and I looked at what went wrong with post-war Justice. Daphina Misiedjan noted the rise of environmental rights, Laura Henderson overturned state-centric approaches towards citizenship and Moritz Baumgärtel zoomed in on the role of “city society” in rights protection. Brianne McGonigle related Truth Commissions to notion of Social Justice whereas Alice Welland, finally, drew attention to the techtonic shifts in our time and the disruption of human rights.

As Christine Bell put it in the opening in the Playfair Library: “Human rights is a resilient language, and it is up to human rights scholars to renew rights talk to suit this day and age”. Such renewal, apparently, calls for a reconsideration of the 70-year old Declaration. The individual contributions, the passionate panel discussions, and thought-provoking keynotes provided three reasons why the Declaration continues to appeal to scholars and the public at large: its subjects, its simplicity, and its scope.

The Universal Declaration, to start with the first aspect, speaks to all of us. It sets a common standard of achievement “for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society” to promote respect for the rights and freedoms concerned. Whereas the human rights treaties that preceded it essentially depart from the dichotomy of rights holders and duty bearers, the Declaration firmly states that “all human beings should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. Today’s world shows how – from Syria to camp Moria – this strong reliance on states to respect, protect and fulfill human rights that essentially form limits on their sovereignty is overly optimistic. This is all the more so in times of populism, in which the voice of the majority seems to count more than the plight of many minorities.

A second reason for the continued appeal of the Declaration could well be the simplicity and beauty of its language – possibly the reason why, according to the Guinness Book of Records, it is the most translated document in the world. Take a simple sentence like: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” – carved in stone, printed on t-shirts, and drawn out on artwork all over the world. Many of the rights in the Declaration would easily fit a tweet these days, like article 5: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Such sentences might not have been enough basis for guaranteeing legal protection, but most definitely captured the imagination of many victims of such treatment and possibly also those well placed to actually offer the protection desired.

A final explanation for the continued appeal is the scope of the Declaration. Much of the work in human rights, to date, is about mending the rift created by the formulation of two Conventions: One on civil and political rights, the other on their social, economic and cultural counterparts. One with Western Liberal Democracies as the driving force, the other supported by Southern and Eastern Social and Communist countries. The UDHR realises, as so many people have emphasised since, that people cannot form associations when worrying about finding a place to sleep, that they cannot exercise their freedom of opinion without proper education, and that protecting the right to life and providing for basic needs are very closely related. It would take up to 1993 until all UN member states said so much in the Vienna Declaration, and spoke of human rights as “universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated”.

In all these respects, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is simply more relevant, more inspirational, and more visionary than many of the more recent binding treaties. It speaks to us. It does so in plain and compelling language. It says nearly all that needs to be said. As Eleanor’s granddaughter put it compellingly in her closing address: it enables us to “channel Eleanor Roosevelt”, and with her the resolve to leave the wartime atrocities behind forever. This is doubly important in a time when so many clearly need the protection of human rights, but in which human rights themselves also need protection – from assaults on their legitimacy, their relevance, their effectiveness. At such times, it seems as though the whole shiny building erected by states and legal scholars is there, but that the moral foundation itself has become shaky. A lot of the most innovative scholarship at Utrecht University and beyond is about reconsidering these foundations. It was via the AHRI conference in Edinburgh that it dawned on me how close consideration of human rights’ past might well provide important insights into how best to secure their continued relevance in the future.