In defence of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights

In honour of the 70th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an event was held at the Serena Hotel in Kigali this week.

It could have been seen as another cocktail event where dignitaries mingle, network and enjoy an hour or two of drinks and finger food.


However, as I stood in the audience and paid attention to the three speeches given, I could not help but reflect on the power of this document signed in 1948 as a response to World Wars 1 and II.


The first speech was delivered by the Chairperson for the National Commission for Human Rights in Rwanda; she spoke effectively about the effects the Commission has had and also of the relevance of the declaration itself.


Her speech was followed by that of the Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Rwanda who took the opportunity to look at not just the human side of the declaration but also on the academic and practical elements which have arisen from this seminal document.

The last speech of the night was delivered by the country’s Minister for Justice and Attorney General who spoke quite eloquently about Rwanda and human rights, the mistakes of the past and present both locally and globally while acknowledging faith in an even better future.

I mention who spoke to set the tone for the idea that the evening was framed as a celebration and reflection and not as a time to dissect and reframe a Declaration which has been successful in what it set out to do.

It is quite easy to forget that no one document or organization can solve the world’s problems in the same way that no man is an island.

That said, there has been criticism of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a document. There are questions of its success and of its relevance in today’s world when apartheid no longer exists, women can vote and so much else is different from in 1948.

Quite often the critics of the document make connections to all the ills of the world and the United Nations as a reason to target this particular declaration.

In response I say, yes the world is evil and seemingly ridiculous in the past few years. But, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was not written or intended to solve every problem that exists.

It was specifically written and endorsed with the aim to BRING PEACE.

Here in 2018 we have the wars in Yemen and Syria which are both blights which need to be condemned but what we do not have are any world wars or potential world wars which will not be stopped in its tracks because of entities such as the United Nations and all the other rational thinking entities, governments and individuals across the globe.

Especially when one seeks to self-aggrandize and to be a provocateur it is easy to shine a bright light on an issue and potentially cause chaos but that is called being irresponsible.

A responsible action when critiquing any global declaration or treaty is to not just look at a reason it should be revoked or rewritten but to also acknowledge its positives if any exists.

Further to that, the first point of seeking redress should never be to liken oneself to greats such as Nelson Mandela et al and to question why one was not given a podium to spew opposition without careful analysis.

The first point should be to request an audience with the relevant parties to discuss the issues one wants to raise. Request a meeting with the local head of the UN system, the head of the UN’s Human Rights agency as well as the Minister of Justice and the chairperson for the National Commission for Human Rights.

Get up on the podium after they have refused to meet with you. If the first call is to the microphone then the question begs to be asked as to whether attention is being sought to solidifying oneself as a provocateur or a genuine desire exists to make a situation better.

No document, entity or individual is above and beyond reproach and the world would be a sad place if that were the case. The world is also sad, however, if we seek first to criticize in order to be relevant versus employing the tools of analysis.

While we individually or collectively reflect on whether the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights should be revisited because the world is still not perfect and has not stopped all of the ills created by us as human beings and our egos, let me refresh our memories of a few of the international and regional human rights treaties that have evolved from the 1948 document:

●      International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination

●      International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

●      International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

●      International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women

●      International Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

●      International Convention on the Rights of the Child

●      International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers or Members of their Families

●      International Convention on the Prevention of Enforced Disappearances

●      International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The real question in my mind is not whether the 1948 declaration and the other treaties since then have had an impact, it is what would the world be today if they did not exist. The United Nations and its organs are fair game for a lot of criticisms but what person, entity or group is not?

Let us keep the pressure on for the UN to do better and be better but let us do our analysis and ensure our criticisms are grounded in reality and not simply grounded in self-aggrandization and a need to say the West and the organizations it controls are bad.

Twitter: @NatsCR

The views expressed in this article are of the author.


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