Reflecting on 75 Years of Universal Human Rights: Exploring Complex Narratives and a Call for Resolute Commitment


On December 10, 2023, the global community commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a pivotal milestone in the domain of international commitments. Crafted to safeguard the inherent rights of every individual, irrespective of distinctions such as race, color, religion, gender, language, political beliefs, or socio-economic status, the UDHR emerged as a beacon of justice and equality.

Initiated by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948, the UDHR delineates fundamental human rights that should universally be upheld. It stands as a testament to the collective resolve to protect the dignity and freedoms of individuals across the globe. Remarkably, the UDHR is available in over 500 languages, making it the most translated document globally.

In acknowledgment of this historic declaration, the United Nations has embarked on a year-long initiative emphasizing universality, progress, and engagement. This endeavor will culminate in a high-profile event in December 2023, where global commitments and visionary ideas for the future of human rights will be announced.

The overarching theme for 2023 is “Freedom, Equality, and Justice for All”. Since its adoption in 1948, the UDHR has played a pivotal role in advancing the recognition and guarantee of human rights worldwide. Over the decades, it has laid the foundation for an expanding system of human rights protection, extending its reach to vulnerable groups, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and migrants.

Despite these advancements, the promise of dignity and equal rights, as outlined in the UDHR, has faced persistent challenges in recent years. The world grapples with new and ongoing crises such as pandemics, conflicts, widening inequalities, a morally compromised global financial system, racism, and climate change. In these tumultuous times, the values and rights enshrined in the UDHR serve as guiding principles for collective action, ensuring that no one is left behind.

The Human Rights 75 initiative serves as more than just a commemoration; it is a profound exploration into the enduring relevance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and an endeavor to deepen global awareness of its universality and the activism associated with it. This initiative acknowledges the pivotal role the UDHR plays in shaping the principles that govern our shared humanity. However, as we delve into the celebration of human rights, it is crucial to navigate the nuanced landscape of diverse societal narratives that exist across different regions of the world.

Cultural diversity stands as a cornerstone in the mosaic of human experience. Therefore, any efforts to adapt or apply the principles of the declaration must be grounded in a deep respect for the varied cultural contexts in which these principles are implemented. Recognizing and acknowledging these differences is not only an ethical imperative but also a pragmatic approach to ensuring the meaningful and effective application of human rights across the globe. It is within these complexities of cultural diversity that the true universality of human rights can be realized.

However, amid the celebration and recognition of human rights, there looms a disconcerting trend that has gained prominence in recent years—the politicization of human rights. In certain instances, human rights are wielded as political tools, manipulated against specific actors or nations. The ambiguity surrounding the standards governing these matters further complicates the landscape. The emergence of contradictions is particularly evident when examining specific global crises, such as those in Gaza, Ukraine, and the Rohingya crisis.

One aspect that unveils contradictions in its global practices is the selective nature of intervention in global conflicts. Many powerful nations often intervene in regions where their geopolitical interests align, prioritizing strategic advantages over consistent human rights enforcement. This approach has been evident in instances where human rights abuses occur in regions of lesser strategic importance, resulting in limited or no intervention. The perceived prioritization of national interests over human rights ideals contributes to the perception of a double standard in Western practices.

In Gaza, the complex geopolitical situation has led to a multitude of human rights concerns. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has resulted in a protracted humanitarian crisis, with civilians caught in the crossfire. Allegations of human rights abuses and violations have been levied against the occupying Israeli army, highlighting the need for a nuanced and impartial approach to address the complexities of the situation.

Similarly, the differential treatment of refugees by the many developed countries is glaring. While there is an outpouring of empathy for Ukrainian refugees, a stark contrast emerges in the reception of Syrian, Palestinian and Rohingya and other displaced populations. This inconsistency highlights a troubling disparity in how human suffering is acknowledged and addressed, underscoring the need for a more universal and compassionate approach to human rights, irrespective of geographical or geopolitical considerations. The international community’s response to these issues has, at times, reflected geopolitical considerations rather than a consistent commitment to upholding human rights.

The Rohingya crisis in Myanmar is another poignant example. The mass displacement and persecution of the Rohingya community have been widely condemned as a blatant violation of human rights. However, the international response has been characterized by a lack of cohesive action, exposing the challenges of navigating political considerations and diplomatic relations in addressing egregious human rights violations.

The sale of arms to nations with questionable human rights records underscores another dimension of double standards in Western practices. While advocating for human rights globally, Western nations engage in lucrative arms deals with countries known for human rights violations. This contradiction raises ethical concerns, as the arms trade contributes to conflicts and exacerbates human rights abuses. The apparent prioritization of economic interests over consistent human rights principles casts doubts on the sincerity of global commitments to upholding these ideals.

The influence of many powerful nations in international institutions can also be seen as a source of contradictions in human rights practices. The power dynamics within these institutions often reflect the interests and priorities of these nations, leading to a perception of bias. This can result in uneven enforcement of human rights standards, with powerful nations facing less scrutiny compared to others. Addressing power imbalances within international institutions is crucial for fostering a more equitable and impartial application of human rights principles.

In the face of these challenges, preserving the integrity of the UDHR becomes not just a symbolic gesture but a crucial commitment to the principles that underpin human dignity. However, the pursuit of this commitment is fraught with obstacles, particularly when confronted with the reality of diverse cultural narratives and the politicization of human rights.

To effectively address these challenges, it is imperative to maintain a clear concept and unwavering integrity that respects diversity while avoiding the pitfalls of contradictions. The celebration of the UDHR’s 75th anniversary should serve as a catalyst for reflection and action, urging the global community to move beyond rhetoric and toward substantive measures that ensure the protection and promotion of human rights for all.

Amid the complexities of the modern world, the reaffirmation of a commitment to human rights must transcend political differences and cultural nuances. It calls for a paradigm shift in how we approach human rights, moving away from selective application and towards a genuinely inclusive and just global society. The Human Rights 75 initiative, therefore, becomes not only a reflection on the past but a call to action for a future where the principles of the UDHR are not just celebrated but fully realized in the lives of individuals around the world.

As we navigate the intricate web of cultural diversity, political intricacies, and global crises, the true test of our commitment to human rights lies in our ability to rise above the challenges and uphold the principles that form the bedrock of the UDHR. The 75th anniversary serves as a milestone—a moment to not only reflect on the progress made but to forge ahead with renewed vigor and determination to create a world where freedom, equality, and justice are not just ideals but the lived reality for every individual, regardless of their background or circumstance.

– Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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