Aakar Patel's Message Marking 75th Anniversary of International Human Rights Day

Dec 01, 2023
By Aakar Patel

December 10, 1948 is, and certainly should be, as important a date as August 15, 1947 and January 26, 1950.

Human Rights Day is the only day that is celebrated globally, no matter what nation one belongs to and no matter what faith one is born into. It marks the adoption of landmark document that is universal and eternal.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a document that acts like a global road map for freedom and equality – protecting the rights of every individual, everywhere. It was the first time countries agreed on the freedoms and rights that deserve universal protection in order for every individual to live their lives freely, equ­­ally and in dignity.

The UDHR was adopted by the newly established United Nations on 10 December 1948, in response to the “barbarous acts which… outraged the conscience of mankind” during the Second World War. Its adoption recognized human rights to be the foundation for freedom, justice and peace.

Work on the UDHR began in 1946, with a drafting committee composed of representatives of a wide variety of countries, including the USA, Lebanon and China. The drafting committee was later enlarged to include representatives of Australia, Chile, France, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, allowing the document to benefit from contributions of states from all regions, and their diverse religious, political and cultural contexts. The UDHR was then discussed by all members of the UN Commission on Human Rights and finally adopted by the General Assembly in 1948.  

India was represented in the stages of drafting by Hansa Mehta, Minoo Masani and Lakshmi Menon, who made a series of substantive contributions to the numerous articles that made up the UDHR.

As the scholar and activist Miloon Kothari has noted, changes India influenced included:

“1. Women’s rights (India insisted on the word ‘men’ be replaced with ‘human beings’);

  1. Non-discrimination  (India added the words ‘colour’ and ‘political opinion’ as criteria for non-discrimination);
  2. Freedom of movement (India added the article calling for freedom of movement within a country);
  3. The right to work (India added the principle of ‘just and favourable conditions of work’);
  4. Secularism, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, indivisibility and the universality of all human rights.”

The Declaration outlines 30 rights and freedoms that belong to all of us and that nobody can take away from us. The rights that were included continue to form the basis for international human rights law. Today, the Declaration remains a living document. It is the most translated document in the world.

The UDHR is a milestone document. For the first time, the world had a globally agreed document that marked out all humans as being free and equal, regardless of sex, colour, creed, religion or other characteristics.

The 30 rights and freedoms set out in the UDHR include the right to be free from torture, the right to freedom of expression, the right to education and the right to seek asylum. It includes civil and political rights, such as the rights to life, liberty and privacy. It also includes economic, social and cultural rights, such as the rights to social security, health and adequate housing.

The UDHR is, as its title suggests, universal – meaning it applies to all people, in all countries around the world. Although it is not legally binding, the protection of the rights and freedoms set out in the Declaration has been incorporated into many national constitutions and domestic legal frameworks.

The Declaration has also provided the foundation from which a wealth of other legally binding human rights treaties have been developed, and has become a clear benchmark for the universal human rights standards that must be promoted and protected in all countries.

The UDHR continues to serve as a foundation for national and international laws and standards. For organizations like Amnesty who are committed to protecting and fighting for human rights, it acts as a guiding inspiration for our mission and vision.

Let us end with an excerpt from a newspaper article from three years ago. This was at the beginning of the most successful mass mobilisation seen in the recent era. Those who had gathered were peasants and agriculturalists and protesting for their rights, but they stood for all dissenters, no matter how vilified and no matter how much abuse would be directed their way in standing for them.

At Delhi’s Tikri border on December 11 2020, posters of several activists who have been arrested across the country over the past few years were put up during the farmers’ protest.

Posters of activists Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, poet-activist Varavara Rao, Pinjra Tod members Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita and JNU student Sharjeel Imam and former student Umar Khalid, among others, were held up by protesting farmers to mark ‘Human Rights Day’. All have been booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in different cases.

While the biggest protest site at present is at the Singhu border, farmers also have been sitting at the Tikri border for two weeks now. The farmers have maintained since the beginning of their protest that political issues, other than those related to farmers’ welfare, will not be raised from the protest stage.

Joginder Singh Ugrahan (75), president, Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), explained why his group was protesting for those who are incarcerated. “This was done to celebrate Human Rights Day. These are prisoners who fought for the underclasses and their rights. We are also fighting for your rights, which the government is trying to take away from us,” he said.

This is the true spirit of Human Rights Day, and the most noble way in which it can be celebrated and marked: By standing up for the rights of others.

Aakar Patel is a writer and journalist whose most recent work is a work of fiction, ‘After Messiah’.