70 Years Later: Lights & Shadows of Human Rights

By Agnese Olmati

Today, on December 10, 2018, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights celebrates its 70th anniversary. After seven decades and many achievements, it is certainly important to honour the document which became a major milestone for the history of human rights and is now regarded as a yardstick by all nations. However, it is also necessary to highlight that the UDHR is not all black and white, as well as the declarations it inspired, like for example the European Convention on Human Rights (1953) or the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the European Union (2009).
All these papers, their articles and their words demonstrate the states’ commitment to the protection of human rights but, despite this, it is clear that today, nations and the institutions created to protect those rights are often failing. A simple example? Even if the three above-mentioned declarations prohibit slavery, servitude, forced labor and the trafficking of human beings, all these can still be found in many countries around the world and around Europe[1].

The practical failure in the protection of human rights is now of great concern especially in Europe, where these rights are some of the main principles on which the European Union was built. Recent events have questioned the willingness of Europeans to actually support other people to be able to enjoy their same human rights and have shown the difficulties the EU encounters in guaranteeing the fruition of these rights to its citizens, thus challenging the accomplishment of the entire European project.
But flaws do not only concern the practical protection of human rights. Considering the theoretical aspect, there are several obstacles in the understanding and consequent application of the UDHR.

First of all, one of the main challenges arisen by the UDHR lays in its formulation. As a matter of fact, the paper is all about human rights. But what are human rights? They are defined by the UN as “rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status” and thus “everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination[2]“. Human rights belong to everyone and are thus universal, as the UDHR is. However, the choice of the word “universal” can be questioned for different reasons.
As already mentioned, many different documents were inspired by the UDHR, including the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights, adopted in 1990 by the Member States of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
The contrasts amongst different documents all aiming at protecting human rights are easy to recognize. Let us consider the right to life as an example.
According to art. 3 of the UDHR,

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.

The European Convention on Human Rights gives more details to its definition of the right to life in art. 2, stating that

“1. Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law.
2. Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in contravention of this Article when it results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary:
(a) in defence of any person from unlawful violence;
(b) in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained;
(c) in action lawfully taken for the purpose of quelling a riot or insurrection”.

Art. 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the European Union affirms instead:

“1. Everyone has the right to life.
2. No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed”.

Also Art.2 of the Cairo Declaration protects the right to life as follows:

“(a) Life is a God-given gift and the right to life is guaranteed to every human being. It is the duty of individuals, societies and states to protect this right from any violation, and it is prohibited to take away life except for a Shari’ah-prescribed reason. (b) It is forbidden to resort to such means as may result in the genocidal annihilation of mankind. (c) The preservation of human life throughout the term of time willed by God is a duty prescribed by Shari’ah. (d) Safety from bodily harm is a guaranteed right. It is the duty of the state to safeguard it, and it is prohibited to breach it without a Shari’ah-prescribed reason[3]”.

From this comparison it becomes evident how different the approaches to the same right can be. The definition given by the Cairo Declaration demonstrates that the rights protected by the UDHR can actually be interpreted in several ways, which might also be in contrast with what is affirmed in the UN document. The Cairo Declaration has been widely criticised because it actually limits what stated in the UDHR, and such controversy becomes even more anomalous considering that the nations that signed the Cairo Declaration are also in the UN and should thus support the its universal values and rights.

It is therefore legitimate to ask ourselves: can human rights be universal? Or are they influenced by cultural relativism? Of course, if we compare the Islamic world and the West, it can be easily arguable that the two present many differences and contrasts in their mindsets and sets of values. However, similar divergencies are also present amongst countries which are very close from the geographical, economical and societal points of view. When looking at human rights in Europe we can find many different interpretations and applications, together with the question of whether certain rights should or should not be included, as LGBT rights for example. As a matter of fact, it is far from simple to define what a right is and if it is a universal right. To which point something required from the individual can be considered as concerning an entire community? Again, the term universal implies the involvement of the entire humankind and might be regarded as clashing with rights that do not directly concern all human beings.
Ambiguities are not limited to the concept of universality of the Declaration and human rights in general. Keeping in mind the different articles on the right to life, we can see that the UDHR gives a concise and powerful statement, which, however, is very vague and unprecise. In fact the Declaration, as well as the following documents, do not state when life starts and do not mention the right to end life. Such ambiguity results in several interpretations of the same right and does not support, for instance, the right to abortion and the right to euthanasia. With just a short line dedicated to it, the right to life seems to be a bit cramped in art. 3, squeezed between very few words, many facets and a lot of fragility.

Mukwege Murad 2018 Nobel
The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, Denis Mukwege and Nadia Mura, both highlight the consequences of human rights violations. (© Nobel Media AB 2018)

After 70 years and many words spent on the fight for human rights, today it is clear that we still need to address some issues and that much more can be achieved for their protection.
An idea of how to approach our future relation with the UDHR and human rights might be found in the installation Enlightened Universe by Cristobal Gabarron, which was recently brought to Brussels to celebrate the Declaration’s anniversary. Composed by a metallic sphere and surrounded by 70 human-shaped figures joined hand-in-hand, the sculpture invites all the people to collaborate for a better world. What is peculiar about this work of art is that when looking at it, it is possible to see your reflection in the metallic surface of the sphere.
In front of the installation, Federica Mogherini affirmed that “looking at the world you see yourself. This is a very powerful appeal to individual responsibility. These triangles of mirrors reflect our own faces. It depends on us, on the approach we take if the common global picture is good or not[4].” In the same way as Enlightened Universe involves all passers-by, the UDHR should be able to mirror the variety of needs of the humankind and continue to keep the human being at its heart.


[1] https://www.politico.eu/article/labor-trafficking-exploitation-modern-day-slavery-on-the-rise-in-europe-report/
[2] http://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/human-rights/
[3] http://www.bahaistudies.net/neurelitism/library/Cairo_Declaration_on_Human_Rights_in_Islam.pdf
[4] https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/52687/eu-un-partnership-mirrored-enlightened-universe-exhibition_en


Featured picture credit: Enlightened Universe, United Nations (Geneva).

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