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Eleanor Roosevelt, Chairman of Human Rights Commission, and Charles Malik, Chairman of the General Assembly’s Third Committee (second from right), during a press conference after the completion of the Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948. UN Photo

Seventy years of international human rights

It’s the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948. Since then an enormous body of international human rights law has been developed.

Some people think that human rights should not be universal. And some critics believe that human rights are an example of Western cultural imperialism. They claim that non-Western countries did not participate in drafting the Universal Declaration. Yet non-Western countries have been involved since the earliest stages in drawing up human rights documents.

However, all countries can be quite hypocritical when it comes to applying the laws they agree to.

Other critics argue that human rights promote selfish individualism. Instead of caring for the family or community, people only care for their own rights. But in countries like Canada where human rights are, for the most part, legally respected, citizens follow these laws because they do have a sense of community and care for each other. Housing advocates, food bank workers and millions of volunteers help make human rights “work” on the ground.

Yet others claim that as China and other non-democratic countries become more powerful, human rights will be less important internationally. It is true that such countries do work to undermine many human rights, at home and at the UN. But that makes human rights more relevant, not less. We all need protection against abusive governments.

Human rights are still relevant and new rights are evolving.

Signs of progress

One sign of progress is in LGBTQ rights. This topic is difficult to discuss internationally, because some places, especially but not only Russia and countries in Africa and the Middle East, still have laws that prohibit homosexuality. Some religious groups, in the Western world as elsewhere, are also homophobic. We don’t yet have an international declaration on LGBTQ rights, but the UN is paying more attention to them.

A visitor feels the raised lettering of a white marble mosaic featuring text from the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, at the WTC Cortlandt train station, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

In the last 20 years, much attention has been paid to “collective” human rights. These are rights than belong to groups of people and that one individual can’t exercise if others can’t also exercise them.

Indigenous rights are collective rights. Indigenous ways of life, languages, religions, cultures and land bases are threatened. In 2007 the UN passed UNDRIP, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Canada voted against the Declaration, but later reversed its position. By 2016 the government declared its full support for UNDRIP.

Clean environment is a right

A collective right that affects everyone everywhere is the right to a clean and healthy environment. This includes the right to protection against climate changes that undermine our livelihoods and well-being.

Another collective right is the right to peace. Viewed narrowly, this is the right not to live in a state of war. In 2018, many people still live in war-torn countries, especially countries in the Middle East and parts of Africa. Others, in the Ukraine, live in fear of war. And we all live in fear of nuclear war.

Both climate change and war create huge refugee populations. By 2050, it’s thought, there will be 200 million “climate refugees” fleeing rising sea levels. Add to that the refugees who are fleeing large-scale crime, like the migrant “caravan” currently trying to enter the United States.

Economic human rights

The UN recently agreed on a Global Compact for Migration, setting out voluntary principles meant to save lives and ensure successful migrant integration into new countries without unduly burdening social infrastructure such as health care. But the real challenge is to ensure people don’t have to leave home at all.

The Commission Chairman, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt (right) with Mrs. Hansa Mehta of India, the only two female delegates to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1947-48. UN Photo/Marvin Bolotsky

One way to ensure more people can live in their homes is to develop economies. The right to economic development is a collective right. Development activists usually try to reduce both poverty and inequality. There’s been an enormous reduction in world poverty over the last 25 years, even as inequality has been growing in most countries.

This means it’s easier to fulfil what is known as economic human rights, such as rights to health, education and housing. Very little of this change results from foreign aid; most is a result of the spread of market economies.

Many people in many countries have benefited from globalization, though others, such as industrial workers in Canada and the U.S., have lost their jobs. This is one of the reasons for the spread of anti-immigrant, xenophobic sentiments in the Western world.

Unless we can figure out a way to control these sentiments and reduce the need for people to flee their own countries because of war, crime, economic challenges and climate change, we are facing an uneasy human rights future.

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