By Laksiri Fernando –
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is now 73 years old adopted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948. That time the member states were only 58, now increased to 193 consequences to decolonization in Asia and Africa, breakup of previously large states like the Soviet Union, and various other reasons.
The UN Charter is the foundation of the present international order between member states adopted in 1945 and the Universal Declaration can be considered its principal manifesto looking after the matters of people’s human rights. The immediate reason for human rights taking a principal focus of the UN was the tragic experiences of fascism and harrowing atrocities during the Second World War. However, when the Declaration was drafted the perspective was futuristic placing high standards.
As a declaration, the UDHR does not have a strict legal binding on member states but appears a most accepted and appreciated manifesto internationally. Academically speaking there can be some weaknesses or imbalances in the UDHR. However, there is nothing to reject or object of its principles or articles.
Consisting of simply written 30 Articles, it covers the meaning of human rights, their roots, relevance to all peoples internationally, and most importantly five principal aspects of human rights as civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. The Declaration is available in over 500 languages including in Sinhala and Tamil. Sri Lanka Foundation and Foundation Institute (SLF/SLFI) were instrumental in translating the Declaration into Tamil and Sinhala.
Since 1948, while the UN has adopted nearly 200 further declarations, covenants, and conventions, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) can be considered the main international instruments transforming the UDHR into more practical relevance.
Some of the important guidelines in promoting human rights are the following as referred in the Preamble.
‘Inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’
‘Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.’
‘If man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, human rights should be protected by the rule of law.’
While reflecting on the above, Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans can ask the question themselves whether they have done the necessary to promote human rights during the last 73 years? Yes, there was a time that governments and various other public agencies promoting human rights education and training. Even human rights were part of school curricula at one time. Sri Lankan army also had an extensive human rights programme during 2000-2005. But unfortunately, all these have taken a backstage now. The purpose of celebrating the World Human Rights Day this year should be to rejuvenate these efforts again and determine to promote and protect human rights in the country.
In understanding human rights, and their relevance to our lives, articles in the Declaration are particularly important. Common humanity is the foundation of human rights. Article 1 enunciates this concept perhaps little idealistically saying, ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason, and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’
Birth undoubtedly has some fundamental equality. But unfortunately, we are born into unequal societies and some people are born also with disabilities. A realistic view of human rights should accept that. Otherwise, we will be in a dream world. Yes, we all have or should have ‘reason and conscience’ and that is something we all should try to promote ourselves and among our children, siblings, and friends. That is the meaning of the second sentence.
In the application of human rights there should not be any distinction as to ‘race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status,’ (Article 2). In the second sentence of the article, it also adds rejection of discrimination based on the country of origin. In the case of immigration, this principle should apply although it is disregarded by many countries. What are the other key principles?
‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.’
‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’
‘All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.’
Above and many others in articles from 6 to 17, have articulated what we normally call civil rights. Do we have them in our countries? This is something we should ponder in ‘celebrating’ the Human Rights Day.
Political rights may be more important today in all countries because of trends towards authoritarianism. While ‘everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ in equality and without discrimination, ‘everyone also has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.’ This right includes ‘freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’
Freedom of the media, journalists, publications, research, and teaching are cornerstones of freedom of opinion. In politically active sphere, ‘everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.’ This includes the right to form trade unions, political parties, oppositions, and civil society organizations.
For a democratic political system, Article 21 can be considered most important. The meaning of ‘everyone has the right to take part in the government of his/her country, directly and/or through freely chosen representatives’ is far reaching although not understood or explained properly. This right is not limited to election time, but all times and the public authorities are duty bound to listen and seek public opinion on all important issues. The principle that ‘everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his/her country’ which appears in the same article has relevance in Sri Lanka today where the public service is ostracized and castigated due to its so-called failure to produce profits!
The concept of ‘sovereignty of the people’ has come to our constitution from the same article which further says, ‘the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government. This will/shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.’
Economic and Social Rights
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security. That is the basis of economic, social, and cultural rights. ‘Economic, social, and cultural rights are indispensable for his/her dignity and the free development of his/her personality.’ That is what the Declaration says in Article 22.
Although in liberal democratic countries many civil and political rights are safeguarded, economic and social rights are lagging-behind except in countries where welfare policies or social democracy prevails. It is naturally difficult in developing countries to fulfil economic and social rights except through international cooperation. However, international cooperation for the ‘right to development’ is largely neglected by Western countries and multilateral organizations today. UN might be the only hope for the countries with poverty, malnutrition, health issues, vast unemployment, and large income gaps.
Right to employment is the crucial requirement in poor countries. If this is not supplied in the private sector, the State should come forward and supply them through public sector. This has been the policy in Sri Lanka in the past but threatened on various grounds at present.
The Declaration says, ‘Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.’ Everyone has the right to equal pay for equal work without any discrimination. This is also not fulfilled in Sri Lanka especially in the case of women and the estate workers. The full range of economic rights have never been achieved in Sri Lanka or in almost other countries. The following article is the basic criteria.
‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.’
The above quick description of the Universal Declaration shows that human rights are still a pending struggle, particularly in the economic and social sphere. All progressive political parties should embrace human rights in their policies and programs without confining themselves to changing one government against the other. Change of governments are necessary but with a perspective of establishing and reinstating a broad range of human rights in a progressive manner mobilizing people through awareness, education, and action.