The Promise of the UDHR 70 Years on

4 Dec, 2018 | Blogs, Latest, Protecting Human Rights in the UK

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By Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission

My father-in-law was 28 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted; living in New York City with his family, four thousand miles from home, survivors of the devastation of European Jewry.  He still has an Austrian accent, still hasn’t been back to Vienna and still doesn’t like policemen.  The bitter pill for him to swallow, after all these years, must be Pittsburgh, and all it stands for – that 70 years after that declaration on a December day in Paris, hatred still leads a man to walk into a baby blessing in a Shabbat morning service and murder people for being Jewish.  So what was the purpose of the UDHR and what was it all about?

There has been fabulous work done to record the testimony of my father-in-law’s generation – from the creation of the film “Shoah” to the work of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation; organisations and individuals who foresaw that the loss of eye-witnesses would be an immense blow to the need to remember.

I think the current threat to the UDHR is an international malaise – 70 years of peace in Europe have lulled us into a sense of complacency.  We have forgotten what happens when we lose the framework of fundamental rights; we don’t see the raw truth of what man may do to man without them; we don’t understand that there are no guarantees of safety – that if we chip away at this right, or at that right, the entire structure comes down on our heads.

In biblical terms, 70 years (three score years and ten) is a man’s lifetime.  The childhood of the UDHR was post-war austerity and the Cold War, its adolescence the sixties, and it came of age when Britain joined the EU.  As the years sped by, it seems to me that the UDHR oversaw two things: a growth in inherent liberalism on the one hand and, on the other, the challenges of austerity and terror.

The architects of the UK Human Rights Act (1998) couldn’t have known that less than a year after it came into force, two planes would fly into the World Trade Centre and change the dialogue about human rights in the UK for the entire infancy of the Act.  It never had a chance to become the language, as Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, of “small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world…the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works.”   Rather less famously, Eleanor Roosevelt in her speech to the UN Assembly compared the UDHR to Magna Carta, to the Bill of Rights and to the French Declaration of the Rights of Citizens in 1789 – all big places associated with blood and violence.

In 2008, after the shocking demise of Lehman Brothers, austerity came to the country and brought its own pressure to bear.  Along with the association of human rights with Abu Qatada, the UDHR watched on while successive spending reforms disproportionately affected the most disadvantaged, and while divisions increased – as Bertrand Russell wrote “Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.”

And yet, at the same time as we have seen these threats to human rights, in its last decade, the UDHR has seen the continued growth in liberal legislation – the Gender Recognition Act, the Equality Act (encompassing nine protected characteristics, the gold standard for equality), the Same Sex Marriage Act.

Completing the cycle from WW2, through the European Accession Act and now Brexit, we are contemplating a world without the safety net EU law provides in the infrastructure of rights.  Perhaps, as the UDHR watches on from its grandfather position, we will remember the promise it offered, which we have yet fully to realise, of the relationship between a state and its citizens, within the international framework of accountability which lends force to the idea of rights.  Now is the time to do so, in the new Britain of Brexit, before we all forget too much.



Our namesake, Monsieur René Cassin has been called ‘the father of  the Universal Declaration’ – and we are marking the anniversary of the UDHR with a series of events and activities. More information here.

Please also follow us on twitter @Rene_Cassin and join the conversation using #MyUDHRLegacy

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