​​​​​​​A Human Rights Birthday

Rally for refugee rights in London, UK. Photo by: S Nagra

Rally for refugee rights in London, UK. Photo by: S Nagra

Guest blog this week brought to you by: Sati Nagra. She’s an enduring optimist and a fan of travelling, new experiences, and laughter. Her hobbies include yoga, the great outdoors, and learning to play the banjo. She’s currently based between the UK and Australia.

Come 10th December, I wish others a happy Human Rights Day. And myself a happy birthday. Although not necessarily in that order.

As an international lawyer with a longstanding conviction in human rights, it’s always been a bit of a thrill to share my birthday with UN Human Rights Day – effectively the birthday of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 2018 the Universal Declaration will be 70. (Considerably older than me, before you ask.) And so on Human Rights Day this year, the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights launched its year-long #StandUp4HumanRights campaign to lead up to the occasion.

The campaign aims to engage more of us in the year ahead, promote greater understanding of how the Universal Declaration empowers us all, and to prompt reflection on how each of us can stand up for human rights every day.

So, it only seems appropriate to get involved.

What are human rights?

 At their essence, human rights are legal protections that recognise the inalienable rights and dignity that we are each individually and inherently entitled to, simply by virtue of being human.

They range from the right to life and right to freedom from slavery, through to the rights to work, self-determination, and freedom from hunger. They are granted to every single one of us - regardless of our race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. You get the idea.

While we are each of us beneficiaries of these rights, it is governments that agree to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights - under treaties adopted under international law and enacted in domestic legislation. There is also a growing body of human rights law that recognises corporate entities as possessing similar obligations.

Thus human rights effectively act as a legal tool to define the protections guaranteed to us all, and provide a platform upon which to hold our governments, and sometimes corporate entities, accountable for doing so.

Human rights protect us all

 We often hear about human rights on the news - most dramatically in the context of stark violations occurring through torture, war crimes, or mass atrocities. Indeed, when I worked with a UK charity assisting survivors of torture, the protection promised by the fundamental human rights to life and to be free from torture were obvious - it was mainly by documenting violations of such rights that survivors substantiated why they shouldn’t be returned to their country of origin and the risk of further torture. In such contexts, it’s easy to fall into the mindset that human rights are only relevant in such grievous circumstances, or to people from elsewhere. 

Yet the language of human rights can be heard all around us. For example, here in the UK, human rights infuse employer obligations to protect our equality and safety in the workplace. Data protection laws demand public bodies protect our personal data to respect our human right to a private life. Local authorities possess human rights duties to protect life and provide adequate and safe housing – which is why the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission is examining the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Human rights protections can therefore operate discretely, but are brought to the fore upon risk of violation.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC )COP 23 Bonn, Germany Dec 2017

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC )COP 23 Bonn, Germany Dec 2017

Personally, I’m fascinated by the evolving scope and applicability of human rights protections to new and emerging circumstances. For example, at the recent UNFCCC COP 23 in Germany, I was lucky enough to attend the first COP Presidency event directly linking human rights with climate change action. Mary Robinson[1] succinctly stated how ‘climate change is the biggest human rights threat that we face, because it becomes an existential threat’. Whereas Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama[2] emphasised how human rights offer hope for the most vulnerable at the front line of climate change, given the universal applicability of human rights protections. The atmosphere in the room was exhilarating - as the event was momentous in formally signifying that human rights protections are recognised as a tool to press for climate change action.

So, while human rights are clearly relevant in the dramatic circumstances that hit headlines, they also operate quietly in the background to uphold our human rights in everyday life too. And, they are continually evolving to protect our rights in new and challenging circumstances.

 What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

 The Universal Declaration was the first global expression of the fundamental human rights that governments from around the world agreed should be universally protected. It was proclaimed as a common standard of global achievement by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948.

A product of the human tragedy of the Second World War, the Universal Declaration recognises ‘the inherent dignity’ and ‘equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’ as ‘the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’.

While not a legally binding document, it was a landmark achievement for the recognition of international human rights, and spurred the creation of subsequent binding treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966, and their Optional Protocols – which, together with the Universal Declaration are collectively referred to as the ‘International Bill of Human Rights’.

Many more international human rights treaties have since been created to protect specific categories of rights - such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, or the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2006. There have even been regional treaties - such as the European Convention on Human Rights 1950, or the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights 1981, which streamline regional protection arrangements and sometimes elaborate further on international human rights standards.

And so nowadays the international human rights regime can clearly be recognised as having global reach and impact. And it all started with the Universal Declaration.

 Human rights in 2018

 We can’t pretend that we live in a world free from human rights violations. It only takes listening to a daily news summary to know that the full promise of the Universal Declaration has yet to be achieved.

However the Universal Declaration, and the regime it has prompted, continues to stand for a universal and enduring aspiration to uphold fundamental values of equality and human dignity as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

It takes a diversity of actors, including each of us in civil society, to ensure that those aspirations are accomplished.

The coming of a new year is inevitably a time for reflection. As we celebrate the start of 2018, and with it the impending 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, perhaps we can take a moment to consider how we can each of us stand up for human rights in the year ahead.

Happy New Year and a belated Happy Human Rights Day!

How can you stand up for human rights in 2018? #StandUp4HumanRights #UDHR70

 [1] Former Prime Minister of Ireland and Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

[2] COP 23 President and Prime Minister of the Republic of Fiji