UDHR at 75: An ode to the rights of humankind!

Dec 01, 2023
By PUCL Bulletin Editorial Board

UDHR @ 75: An ode to the rights of humankind!

Relevance of human rights in the midst of killing fields of unaccountable states

“The worst. Ever. And I don’t say that lightly…  68% of the people killed in Gaza are women and children. They stopped counting the number of children killed. Nobody goes to school. Nobody knows what their future is. Hospitals have become places of war. No, I don’t think I have seen anything like this before. It’s complete and utter carnage.”

Martin Griffith, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief

The chilling words of Martin Griffith, one of the world’s most experienced conflict mediators of innumerable wars, about the killing fields in Gaza, with over 14,500 Gazans killed including over 5000 children, should make the world community take a pause. In a manner never before seen, the entire world has been witness to one of the most brutal, relentless and murderous bombardment of Palestinian civilians by Israeli Defence Forces following the 7th October killing of 1200 Israelis by Hamas. The tacit support and complicity of the US, UK and many European countries stands out. They continue supply of sophisticated arms, ammunition, missiles and intelligence sharing to Israel. The moral support, justifying the Israeli action as the ‘right to self defence’ and blocking international action to pressure Israel to agree to a ceasefire, highlights the perilous nature of the grandstanding of the global western powers.

Throughout the last 45 days of the war on Gaza by the Israelis, and the fawning support extended by the major western powers, the only meaningful and hope generating actions came from the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, who reminded the world that while the killing of innocent Israeli civilians by Hamas on 7th October has to be unequivocally condemned, the sudden incident did not happen in a `vacuum’. Despite the vitriolic attack by Israeli leaders and their western allies, the Heads of various UN agencies and the Special Rapporteurs refused to be bullied into silence by the Western countries, repeatedly drawing attention to the unparalleled and unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe that the war on Gaza had become and repeatedly demanding that a humanitarian ceasefire be announced between the various groups to the conflict. They have also drawn attention to the fact that, at stake was also the plight of Israeli hostages.  UN officials have repeatedly called attention to the fact that the plight of the Gazan residents represents a crisis of humanity, with the peril of seriously impairing and destroying faith in the UN order.

The efforts of the UN have not gone in vain; the growing revulsion across the world, has finally forced the reluctant Israelis as also their main supporter, the US, and Hamas, through the agency of Qatar as mediator, to agree to a ceasefire, in whatever name it is called, so that humanitarian aid can be reached to the millions of suffering Gazans. The truce package, though not officially announced as on date, would hopefully include release of hostages as also innocent Palestinians – women, children and youth – imprisoned by Israel.  

   It is in this historical context that yet another historical event for citizens of the globe  will dawn.  On 10th December, 2023, we will mark the 75th Anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 10th December, 1948.

The 75th anniversary of the UDHR provides an occasion to reflect upon human rights and its futures. The UDHR is itself a revolutionary document because of the values it articulates. By revolutionary, we mean that the UDHR mandates a change in the way human beings relate to each other, in the direction of treating each other as human beings who are equal in dignity and rights. The core of what the UDHR means can be captured in Article 1 of the UDHR which mandates that, ‘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.’

Why this is revolutionary is because it mandates that there are no lesser rights based on gender, nationality, religion or caste or any other marker. It calls upon us to fundamentally transform the way we relate to each other and cultivate a way of relating to each other,  based on respecting  the equal dignity of all persons. The UDHR apart from being addressed to nation states speaks to each of us. It  is a call for each of us to practice an  ‘ethic of the self’ based on the ideals of freedom, equality and dignity.

Reflecting upon the 75th anniversary of the UDHR, it’s  interesting to note that Indians had an imprint on the document.  Of seminal importance is the contribution of Hansa Mehta who was not only part of the Drafting Committee  of the UDHR but also a member of the Constituent Assembly. In fact  she was one of the 15 women in the Constituent Assembly and one of the  ‘founding mothers’ of the Indian Constitution. Hansa Mehta was the one who proposed that the word men in the UDHR be replaced by the more inclusive word human beings. Her proposal was accepted and if today the UDHR is inclusive of gender,  we owe a debt of gratitude to Hansa Mehta. 

Another important contribution to the drafting of the UDHR was by Mohammad Habib, a delegate from India.  Article 18 of the UDHR  which guaranteed the ‘right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ included the  ‘freedom to change his religion or belief’. This liberty to change one’s religion in the UDHR  was opposed by Saudi Arabia, as in Saudi Arabia’s viewpoint, there was no need to mention the right to ‘change one’s religion’.  However the proposed amendment to drop this sub-clause was vigorously opposed by the Indian delegate, Mohammed Habib who said that ‘the Indian constitution included “the right to convert or be converted; that applied to the 40 million Moslems of India as well  as to all others. The adoption of  the Saudi amendment  would be “a tragedy;” he  said.  Eventually the Saudi amendment was defeated and today the UDHR guarantees the right to ‘change one’s religion’. 

Going beyond the shores of India, the UDHR is important as it is the first international recognition that human beings have rights. States cannot do what they want with their citizens because states are sovereign within their territories. One cannot any more argue that just as a farmer is entitled to kill his chickens, states can do what they want their citizens!

The UDHR laid  the foundation for the emergence of human rights organisations and human rights activism worldwide. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch emerged as defenders and protectors of the  concept and values enshrined in the UDHR. The UDHR gave global civil society a language in which a critique of state actions  could be mounted. The fact that states had signed on to the UDHR made it possible for civil society to press states to be accountable to the values they had agreed to be bound by.

On the 75th  anniversary of the UDHR, there is a deep frustration with the fact that rights are there on paper but violated in reality. We see the hypocrisy of human rights, with the  western powers (rightly) supporting Ukraine in defending itself against the aggressor Russia, but refusing to condemn Israel for its violations of human rights and humanitarian law.

However, taking the example of Israel’s  long ranging assault on the rights of Palestinians, it’s important to note that human rights continues to function as an important language through which we can demand accountability. The decades of work by the United Nations through its Special Rapporteurs,  Commissions of Inquiry as well as the agencies like WHO and UNICEF,  as well as Palestinian and Israeli human rights organisations have  produced authoritative, credible documentation of the rights violations committed by Israel. If today we criticise Israel’s conduct the criticism draws heavily from human rights language, concepts and documentation. In particular the work of Palestinian human rights organisations such as AL-Haq, Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and Al Mezan Center for Human Rights  has been nothing short of courageous and exemplary. Embodying Article 1 of the UDHR’s invocation of  the ‘spirit of brotherhood’ we have Israeli human rights organisations such as B’Tselem which document and advocate against Israeli apartheid policies.  

Human rights is still the language through which we can uncover and expose the injustices perpetrated by the powerful. It is a tool  which can be used by the powerless against the powerful. 

The UDHR is a foundational document which represents a crystallisation of the values of freedom, equality and dignity – values which were sought to be destroyed by the Nazi regime.  The UDHR universalizes the horrific experience of Nazi persecution into an understanding that persecution of  any human being  is wrong.  The UDHR is thus  a significant  contribution to the ‘moral storehouse of mankind’. 

Rights emerge from grassroots struggle and become a part of the moral memory of mankind. It is our job as a human rights organisation to protect and defend these values enshrined in the UDHR  which are even more imperilled today. It is for these  reasons that we mark the 75th anniversary of the UDHR  as part of a global human rights movement through this special issue.