Human Rights Since 1948: Has Serious Progress Been Made?

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Since 1948, human rights have been an interesting topic of discussion and, in many cases, a controversial political topic. Last year, an article criticised human rights law in the Mail Online, arguing that payments made to criminals as compensation were unjust.

The article took aim at a popular target in human rights controversies: the European Court of Human Rights. While human rights are a controversial topic in domestic or European politics, when the focus is switched to world politics they take on a role of approval and respect by almost all of the world’s countries.

At the 2013 Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs William Hague highlighted the work of British NGOs in highlighting the plight of some human rights defenders under particular regimes.

In many parts of the world, from repressive states like North Korea to dangerous countries such as Afghanistan and Central African Republic – defending important human rights has historically gone hand in hand with defending democratic values and simple human decency.

Since terrorism, violence and war remain so prevalent in many countries, it can be easy to write off human rights as a failure or claim that very little progress has been made in the defence and achievement of human rights over the last 60 years.

Human Rights and History: Prior to 1948

Although the human rights we support today stem from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the United Nations in 1948, the principles behind human rights go back far further than 66 years.

All of the world’s major religions explored the concept of undeniable rights. Think of the rights listed in the Ten Commandments. All of us are familiar with the principles outlined in the Ten Commandments, from the respect of dignity for one’s fellow man to the importance of peaceful co-existence.

At the core of human rights is a code of ethics. When these ethics are ignored, many dangerous consequences – ranging from war to terror – can occur. When one looks at the year that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed, it becomes clear why these principles were established as undeniable human rights.

Human Rights Since 1948

In 1948, just years after the incredible destruction of World War II and the terrible loss of life of the Holocaust, the importance of establishing a universal set of human rights became visible. Adopted in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has since remained the moral standard by which we judge moral behaviour today.

The original document is undoubtedly an idealistic, inspiring achievement. It is not surprising that some countries have not managed to achieve its goals, or ignored it as a matter of purpose. Since the document, written over 60 years ago, sets a moral code for much of the democratic world its value and purpose is undeniable.

One of the strongest representations of the achievements in human rights made in the last 60 years is the United Nations itself. Once made up of 51 member states, the United Nations now includes 192 member states. Its institutions, such as the Court of Justice and Security Council, play a fundamental role in upholding and defending human rights and maintaining peace around the world today.

Progress has been made in the form of additional conventions and declarations. The 1990 Convention of the Rights of the Child, also passed by the United Nations, marks an important landmark in the development of human rights. The UN’s involvement in preventing war and reducing suffering is also a testament to its importance.

Optimists can argue, with a large amount of evidence behind them, that the ongoing existence and work of the United Nations is itself a testament to the achievement we have made in the field of human rights. Many other organisations, such as Amnesty International, also carry out important, valuable work defending human rights.

Another key indicator of the existence and defence of human rights can be seen in the court systems of the Western democratic countries. In the European Union, the court at Strasbourg works to uphold and protect human rights. In the UK, human rights were codified into law with the Human Rights Act of 1998.

Human Rights: Tension Between Nationalism and Internationalism

The human rights debate often boils down to a fundamental question between the right of affairs of nation states and the international community: What right does an international organisation like the United Nations have to influence the affairs of a sovereign nation?

While optimists can argue that the existence of the United Nations and its extensive work in protecting human rights is evidence of progress, pessimists can argue that the existence of countries that violate and ignore human rights is evidence of poor enforcement and stagnation.

Certainly, there remains a great deal of economic inequality throughout the world, a worrying level of starvation and disease, and limited access to important technology for clean drinking water, medicine and medical care. In many countries, women are still struggling to achieve a standard of living that’s equal to that of men.

Other issues such as child labour, genocide, female genital mutilation and other are all supportive of the case that human rights have regressed in many countries. The estimated 64 million people living in extreme poverty, the 1/8 death rate for young children in sub-Saharan Africa, and the one billion people that lack adequate access to food and clean drinking water every day all support this view.

Over 60 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations National Assembly, the core human rights remain the same. What remains a question is the best way to achieve these rights through economic, social, humanitarian and political means.

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March 18, 2014 · Tim Kevan · Comments Closed
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