On December 10th, the citizens of the world celebrate Human Rights Day. On this day people commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly on December 10th, 1948.
In these 71 years, the people of Europe have got used to the idea that each person has a right to life. We sometimes take the concept of being born free and with equal rights for granted. One should not forget that at the beginning of the last century, people couldn’t even think about things like freedom of speech, thought, or religion. Even though it may sound shocking for people born in Europe, there are still violations of basic Human Rights in other parts of the world. That’s why it is the right time to remind ourselves why Human Rights matter and why the Adoption of Human Rights was so groundbreaking.
A brief history of Human Rights
People tried to protect their basic rights throughout history, but the UN Human Rights Declaration is the most prominent so far since it is supranational and goes beyond the laws of one specific country.
The Human Rights Declaration, with 30 fundamental rights that all people are entitled to, was adopted in 1948 at the third United Nations General Assembly in Paris. Out of 58 UN-members, 48 voted in favor of it. 8 countries, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, the Soviet Union, the Byelorussian and Ukrainian SSR, South Africa and Yugoslavia abstained, while Honduras and Yemen didn’t vote.
Making human rights a global priority came at a high price: at least 65 million lives lost during World War II, let alone the countless number of broken lives.
However, even after the war and the efforts of the United Nations to make everybody understand that all people are born equal, there were some great challenges.
The violation of Human Rights
Here are just a few examples of what occured after:
- Racial segregation in the United States was ‘blooming’. Can you imagine, that in 1957, almost ten years after the adoption of Human Rights, people of color couldn’t attend the same school or hospitals with white people? People lived by the doctrine “separate but equal“, which, of course, cannot mean equal under any circumstances. De jure, the segregation was only outlawed in 1964. De facto, people are still facing racism to one extent or another today.
- 1948 marked the beginning of Apartheid, the social segregation of people in South Africa and Namibia. Among other things, people were not even allowed to marry a person of another ‘race’ back then. It lasted till the beginning of the 1990s.
- People in the Soviet Union “enjoyed” different kinds of human rights. For instance, political repressions were normal practice for the Soviet secret police. The freedom of expression was also rather specific, because everything that was not praising the Soviet Union was censored or examined carefully. Traveling abroad was not easy or close to impossible. Freedom of religion was limited to the freedom of being an atheist. The Soviet passport, about which a famous poet Mayakovsky wrote “Read it and envy me: I happen to be a citizen of the Soviet Union” also stated your national belonging (or rather ethnic affiliation). This was a severe violation of human rights because people were not only judged by their nationalities but also could get in trouble because of it. Especially if this person was Jewish. The level of anti-semitism in the USSR was extremely high. People of Jewish origin were able to move to Israel only since the end of 1960s and it was extremely challenging. But the pressure in the Soviet Union was so harsh, that people did everything to leave it.
- The whole country of Germany was divided into two parts by the Wall. This wall didn’t only settle the geographical borders between German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany, but was also limiting the citizens’ lives to an enormous extent for 28 years. People couldn’t travel freely to another part of the country or even city and couldn’t see their family members for years. During the existence of the Berlin Wall, a reported 130 people were killed in connection to the border. The fall of the Berlin Wall only happened in 1989, 41 years after the adoption of the Human Rights Declaration.
All these examples may seem outdated, and removed from modern life. However the truth is, human rights are still violated in many parts of the world today.
It is still extremely difficult for women to vote in such countries as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Oman, and many others. There are many countries where it is still illegal to be gay, not to mention other members of the LGBTQ+ community, and even more countries where people are constantly under pressure because of their sexual orientation.
There is a crackdown on journalists, political activists, and human rights defenders in Turkey. Meanwhile, in Russia, not only are peaceful protesters arrested, but only a year ago people could be imprisoned or fined for a post (or even a repost) on social media if it seemed to be ‘extremist’.
There are still cases of female circumcision, done without women’s consent, which is very harmful. Not to mention numerous cases of human (especially sex) trafficking and child labor all over the world. Most of the victims of the sex trafficing are women, who are often underage.
So how do Human Rights protect us?
The United Nations states that there are absolute human rights, which shouldn’t be violated under any circumstances.
Firstly, the governments should provide the principal legal protection of human rights guaranteed under international law. If any rights are violated, there is a possibility to complain and even sue the country where the violation takes place. For this purpose, the European Court of Human Rights was created. The application to the court can be done by any individual (or a group of individuals) or non-governmental organizations.
Of course, it is difficult for a lot of people to advocate for themselves, that’s why there are human rights activists, who “advocate on behalf of those who are most vulnerable in their societies“. These activists and lawyers do extremely important work, that change our world for the better. And everyone can help them by spreading the awareness of such problems, supporting movements like #StandUp4HumanRights and donating to them.
We all are born with human rights that are not dependent on governments, employers or even families. Unfortunately, just adopting a declaration on anything is not enough. Therefore activists and lawyers are continuously working hard all around the world. Some of us enjoy more rights than others, but this doesn’t mean that we can be selfish and think that human rights violations are far away from us. It is still our responsibility to protect these rights and not take them for granted.
Header Image Credits: Robert Jones via pixabay.com