Why Human Rights are still so important

Aitana Robey

December 10th, 1948, Paris. The General Assembly of the United Nations proceeded to the vote of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights , which was approved by the 58 member states at that time, with 48 votes in favor and 8 abstentions. The document was conceived as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” and it was a great milestone for the history of human rights.

The Second World War had ended just three years earlier, causing the death of tens of millions of people and violating the rights of a large part of the population. It was a massive slaughter that left behind it several consequences globally. The world was divided in two: the Western Bloc, led by the United States, and the Eastern Bloc, led by the Soviet Union. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights intended to create a common space and to guarantee that an atrocity like WWII would never happen again.

Despite the clearly good intentions of the Declaration, it has been highly debated and criticized, mostly in a constructive and reasonable way. It has been often considered as insufficient, ambiguous and full of deficiencies. Some of the most extended criticism points out the non-existence of a definition of the concept of freedom, its lack of hierarchy and its poor faculties.

Self-evidence, interior feeling and empathy

In 1776, in the preamble of the United States Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote “we hold these truths to be self-evident”, referring to equality among humanity and some unalienable Rights such as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. 

On the other hand, the Declaration of Man and Citizen written in 1789 during the French Revolution, claimed “natural, inalienable and sacred rights of man” as the foundation of any government.

Both declarations didn’t actually consider everyone truly equal in rights, as minorities such as children, imprisoned people, foreigners and women were still excluded. The founders have been considered as elitist, racist and misogynist. Jefferson, for example, was a slave owner, and Lafayette was an aristocrat. It can be dangerous that the history of human rights becomes the history of Western civilization.

Nevertheless, both declarations had a point: they rested on a claim of self-evidence, which is very important to understand Human Rights. Lynn Hunt points out in her book Inventing Human Rights. A history that “human rights are difficult to pin down because their definition, indeed their very existence, depends on emotions as much as on reason. The claim of self-evidence relies ultimately on an emotional appeal (…). We are most certain that a human right is at issue when we feel horrified by its violation”.

This is where empathy becomes a very important and powerful tool, as it is where self-evidence is born. Denis Diderot also highlighted that human rights require an “interior feeling” widely shared by many people.

“Human rights are not just a doctrine formulated in documents; they rest on a disposition toward other people, a set of convictions about what people are like and how they know right and wrong in the secular world”, says Lynn. About empathy, she adds that “it is imagined, not in the sense of made up, but in the sense that empathy requires a leap of faith, of imagining that someone else is like you”.

From the Independence of the United States, the French Revolution and the end of the apartheid, among others, to some of the recent movements that have shaken society in our days, such as #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter, they all rest on the moral, self-evident convictions that govern human rights.

The road is long and there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. But this strong sense of justice, and idealist vision on how the world should be and the faith of deeply believing that everything can –and should– get better have always been the motor for transformative, political and social changes.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been judged as insufficient, but it is not supposed to be a vast, rigorous and closed court document. It is supposed to be a compendium of these basic values shared by humanity that are constantly transforming our society and history, or, as its preamble claims, the “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”.

Legal value and UN mechanisms for the protection of human rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as its name suggests, is a declarative text. The General Assembly of the United Nations resolutions on substantive issues have no mandatory character, so its content is merely advisory.

Within the universal system for the promotion and protection of human rights we find two types of protection mechanisms: conventional mechanisms and extra-conventional mechanisms.

Conventional mechanisms for the protection of human rights are those established in international treaties in human rights matters in order to monitor that the states comply with the obligations that these treaties impose. The implementation of these mechanisms is usually attributed to a specific body created by the convention itself.

There are nine international treaties on human rights: 

International Covenant of Rights Civil and Political (1966) 

International Covenant of Rights Economic, Social and Cultural (1966)

International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965)

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979)

Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984)

Convention on the Rights of the child (1989)

Convention for the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families (1990)

Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (2006)

Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (2006)

Extraconventional mechanisms are all those protection mechanisms of human rights that have not been created by virtue of international treaties, but through resolutions adopted by the UN bodies with competence in the matter.

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