SEVENTY years ago, on Dec 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations (UN). The UDHR, which for many is the most influential document of the last century, begins with a powerful statement, declaring that “the inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights” of all people are the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace”.
What a vision, emerging immediately after the dark years of World War 2. How revolutionary to proclaim that “dignity is inherent” and that “rights are equal and inalienable for all” in an era, when half the world was still under colonial regime.
When the UDHR was adopted, the UN was just three years old. The UN Charter obliged all member nations to promote “universal respect for human rights”, but this was not further defined. During World War II, the world witnessed a multitude of apocalyptic events that led to the deaths of tens of millions of people, leaving a permanent scar and an indelible mark on mankind.
While there were many reasons contributing to the war, extreme nationalism stemming from the indoctrination of racial superiority was a key factor that triggered it. Cognisant of this root cause, the UN established a drafting committee comprising experts from different parts of the world, including from Asia and the Middle East, who developed the UDHR based on the common values and principles of all major cultures and religions of the world. From this, emerged the Declaration that was founded on the core principle that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
The UDHR, which is considered the “mother” of all human rights documents, consists of 30 Articles, covering both civil and political rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights. They address an array of basic human needs, including life and liberty, private and family life, thought and expression, education and health, and work. The Articles form the very foundation of what is known today as international human rights law, comprising the various UN treaties, conventions and jurisprudence.
In the 70 years since the General Assembly passed the UDHR, it is fair to say that the world has changed dramatically. A comprehensive wave of decolonisation swept the globe in the following three decades; scores of human rights treaties elaborated on the articles of the UDHR, specifying how states are accountable to promote and protect human rights; treaties were translated into national constitutions, legislation and adjudication; development around the globe advanced life quality, education and life expectancy.
Despite such progress, one cannot overlook the alarming situations of societal tensions and conflict that are taking place across the globe. In some areas, we see racism and xenophobia gaining ground, especially against minorities and vulnerable groups with disregard for human dignity. Human rights serve as the common value framework that bridges the differences between peoples — peoples of various ethnicities, cultures, religions and beliefs, gender, political views, nationalities and other status. The recognition of human dignity and equal rights are the foundation for justice, and the respect for human rights promotes social cohesion and is therefore a precursor to peace and stability. Hence the human rights agenda is a powerful framework for a country rich in diversity like Malaysia. Because human dignity is established and promoted in all religions and faiths, the promotion and protection of human rights will be a unifying force in Malaysia’s multi-religious and multi-ethnic setting.
Human rights include a set of minimum standards applicable to all human beings, which seek to ensure that even the most vulnerable and disadvantaged of peoples can benefit from the fruits of development and enjoy a life of meaning and self-worth. As such, human rights are a precondition for “leaving no one behind”, which is pivotal to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that all 193 UN member states unanimously adopted in 2015. A human rights-based approach ensures a people-centred and inclusive development agenda that can effectively address pockets of deprivation and reach those who live on the fringes of development such as low-income earners, indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, refugees, migrant workers and the undocumented.
In addition, human rights act as a safeguard against excessive use of force and abuse of power by the state. They are also imperative to democracy, espoused by the right to freedom of opinion and of expression, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association as well as the right to vote.
In this regard, the United Nations Country Team (UNCT) commends Malaysia for successfully expanding the democratic space, political and civil liberties in the country, following its historic 14th General Election and stands ready to support its transformative reform agenda.
On the 70th anniversary of the UDHR, it is only befitting to remind ourselves how far we have come since the cataclysmic world wars that brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reflect how much more needs to be done to further consolidate and bolster a peaceful and just society.
We must all understand and appreciate that human rights are universal to all of us and promoting greater respect for human rights will create an enabling environment for people to make choices in life for their own good and well-being. In essence, human rights are basic to human existence; human dignity will only be intact when human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled.
Considering the atrocities, abuses, and exclusion of many disadvantaged groups that are still taking place in this day and age, the UDHR remains as relevant and important as it was 70 years ago.
Stefan Priesner is the United Nations Resident Coordinator for Malaysia