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75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The 1948 Declaration formulated a claim, but it is by no means the end of the matter.

When the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, draft-ed the Declaration in 1947, the goal was to bridge deep divisions between liberal states and authoritarian regimes, between secular and religious countries. The result was thirty concise articles. Their adoption by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948—although not legally binding—was an astonishing histor-ical development. Since then, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has not remained free of criticism. And when it comes to human rights violations, we are often dealing with massive offenses. The implemen-tation of human rights in social and political reality therefore remains an ongoing challenge. This is currently evident in the developments in the Middle East.

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We almost always associate the great texts of human history with a specific date—this illustrates the special circumstances in which they were written. Every year on December 10, we commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and these days we are celebrating its 75th anniversary. Reason enough to take a look at the origins of the Declaration of Human Rights and its significance.

In 1946, the newly established United Nations Commission on Human Rights was charged with drafting an international human rights code. While in the days of the League of Nations, human rights had been seen primarily as a domestic issue, the experience of World War II and the Shoah meant that a universal commitment to individual human rights was needed. The following year, a formal drafting committee began its work under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, U.S. human rights activist and former First Lady; eight men and women worked on the document for nearly two years—including the Canadian John Humphrey, the Chilean Hernán Santa Cruz, Charles Habib Malik, a Greek Orthodox Christian from Lebanon, Peng Chun Chang, a Confucian scholar from China, and René Cassin, a French Jew.


A Great Moment in Human History

In order to bridge the already deep divide between Western liberal states and authoritarian regimes, between religious and secular countries, the commission tried to formulate general principles as concretely as possible. The result was thirty concise articles without rhetorical pomp. They were the result of long meetings and persistent negotiations.

Naturally, the political divisions of the time were also reflected in the Commission on Human Rights. The Western countries sought political and civil liberties, while the Soviet Union insisted on economic and social rights. Authoritarian states were well aware of the danger that the proclamation of universal human rights could pose to their regimes. In order not to jeopardize the Declaration of Human Rights, it was therefore decided not to make it legally binding.

After a long struggle, the UN General Assembly voted on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. Eleanor Roosevelt declared: "We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and the life of all mankind." In the end, 48 of the then 58 UN member states agreed to the declaration. The Soviet bloc countries (Soviet Union, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) abstained, as did South Africa and, as the only Muslim country, Saudi Arabia. Honduras and Yemen did not participate in the vote. Thus, there was no vote against the Human Rights Declaration.

Even if, in retrospect, it seems like a logical consequence after the world wars and the Shoah, the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 is an astonishing historical development. It came about in a tiny window of opportunity after World War II, which was quickly closed by the Iron Curtain.

The price of this painstaking agreement was that the Declaration of Human Rights is not binding under international law, but rather describes a "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations", as the Declaration puts it. After all, the international community—or at least significant parts of it—had explicitly committed itself to granting inalienable and indivisible rights to every human being. This created a powerful idea to which reference could be made and which would have an increasing impact in the decades to come.


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75 years of human rights at the UN


An Ongoing Challenge to This Day

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has not been free of criticism. It is increasingly accused of being a typical product of Western civilization, imposed on other countries of the world and their diverse cultures with, to put it bluntly, continued colonialist zeal. There is no doubt that the Western-influenced legacy of Humanism and Enlightenment is evident. And as for the representativeness of the United Nations of 1948, it must be acknowledged that there were few African and Asian members at that time. Furthermore, it is difficult to overlook the fact that there are also large, important countries with significant cultures that are either reluctant or no longer willing to accept the reference to universal human rights when critical statements are made about their state practice with regard to the protection and guarantee of human rights. In particular, states with collectivist traditions, such as China, or Islamic states argue that the Universal Declaration is not compatible with the values of Islam and the Koran and perceive individual human rights as an instrument for the enforcement of Western interests. In 1990, the Organization of the Islamic Conference adopted the "Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam," which refers directly to God, Islam, and Sharia. However, its implementation record appears to be no better than that of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Obviously, the Declaration of Human Rights formulated a claim, but this is by no means the end of the matter. This is shown by the reference to human dignity, which is prominent both in the Declaration of Human Rights and in the Basic Law, which came into being at the same time. Human dignity is not sacrosanct, and nowhere has the vulnerability of human dignity been more thoroughly demonstrated than in Nazi Germany. Everyone who voted for the Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, was well aware of this. It was about formulating a goal, a promise. However, the implementation of human rights in social and political reality remains an ongoing challenge until today.


Human Rights Are Not Laws of Nature

As far as the violations of human rights and their frequency are concerned, we have often had to deal with violations on a massive scale. Not only, but especially in the context of armed conflicts, human rights are regularly and seriously violated.

In view of the images and reports of the heinous, inhuman crimes committed by Hamas terrorists in Israel, and also in view of the suffering of the civilian population in the Gaza Strip, which is being perfidiously abused by Hamas as a shield, the question arises as to how it is even possible to uphold human rights, as provided for in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and as we demand of ourselves. Perhaps, as Navid Kermani points out in DIE ZEIT on 9.11.2023, it is too much to ask Palestinians in the bombed Gaza Strip or Israelis who have to run to shelters again and again, or whose children, siblings or partners are currently defending their country in uniform, to show empathy for the other side. "But from the safety of Germany, it should be possible for everyone to empathize with the victims, no matter which side they are on." Right now, everything possible must be done to protect and care for innocent people—Palestinians and Israelis alike. Every life counts equally, and every human sacrifice is one too many. This is the basis of the concept of human rights. Therefore, it is necessary and must be possible to mourn the pain of both sides without justifying or equating anything.

In view of its history, Germany has no special legitimacy to talk about human rights, but it certainly has a special reason to do so. In this country, we should always guard against the temptation of arrogance, because fortunately today we live in a state that has not only declared human rights to be its central concern, but also applies them in a legal, enforceable way. However, we have to realize that human rights are not laws of nature. They are formulated by human beings, they are violated by human beings, and they must be protected by human beings who take seriously the claim to the inviolability of human dignity.

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