After Six Decades, Human Rights Remain a Work in Progress | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 10.12.2008
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After Six Decades, Human Rights Remain a Work in Progress

Sixty years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into being. While the lives of many have improved during the past six decades, there’s still plenty of room for enhancing human rights worldwide.

Group of Chinese people laugh

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights"

The United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed on Dec. 10, 1948, was a response to the injustices committed by totalitarian regimes in the 20th century. Specifically, it was a way for the international community to show its horror with World War II and the genocide of European Jews.

The passage of the Declaration of Human Rights was a turning point in the history of mankind. It represented something completely new. Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, read out the general explanation of human rights to the UN General Assembly in Paris. For the first time, a universal value system had been articulated that covered all states and people.

A search for political solutions

Eleanor Roosevelt speaks on human rights

Eleanor Roosevelt threw her support behind the declaration

"Article 1: 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."

With a total of 30 articles, the declaration covered traditional civil rights and liberties as well as economic, social and cultural rights.

But 60 years later, have they been put into practice? Heiner Bielefeldt, who heads up the German Institute for Human Rights, said there are discrepancies between the declaration's lofty language and the more messy reality of the world today.

"Human rights are being violated today as they were in the past," he said. "The world and the human race have not gotten any better. But the possibility of politically dealing with human rights violations has improved significantly."

Establishing a legal basis

Heiner Bielefeldt, head of the German Institute for Human Rights

Bielefeldt is encouraged by interest outside Europe

The political basis for current human rights work is grounded on various human rights conventions. The establishment of various UN institutions to deal with human rights issues is seen as one of the declaration's biggest accomplishments.

A big step forward was taken at the UN's World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. There, in 1993, human rights became an integral component to the entire work of the United Nations. Making human rights an integral part of all UN activities has given it a boost worldwide, said Morten Kjaerum, director of the EU's Agency for Fundamental Rights, which is headquartered in Vienna.

"In 1990, we still had only five national human rights institutions worldwide that were dedicated to the monitoring and compliance of human rights," Kjaerum said. "Today we have more than 100. And the majority of them are headquartered outside of Europe."

Kjaerum estimates that 10 such organizations exist in Europe today with the rest located in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

"We believe that the debate about human rights has gained momentum, especially outside of Europe," Kjaerum said.

T errorism fight has weakened resolve

US troops take cover from hostile fire near the al-Rasheed hotel in Baghdad

The US has been criticized for ignoring human rights in its fight against terrorism

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, many issues relating to human rights have been called into question. The United States undertook a war in Iraq against the express will of most UN member states and without a mandate of the UN Security Council. The US also showed that it was willing to use torture and rendition on suspected terrorists.

There has been a step backwards in this area of security legislation, said Bielefeldt. While he said "everyone agrees that it's necessary to take action against terrorism," he added that he worries that the terrorism fight is often used as a way to sidestep human rights.

While the terrorism fight continues to chip away at human rights in the West, it has hindered the West's credibility. Countries such as China and Russia view the West as having a double standard in bringing up human rights only when it suits their purposes. In return, many democratic countries have backed off criticism of countries such as China.

Big problems, big solutions

General view of the 58th session of the Commission on Human Rights

The UN has put an emphasis on human rights

Today, the UN has 193 member states governing a world population of 7 billion. Issues such as climate change, globalization, food shortages, terrorism and epidemics require urgent global solutions. Human rights groups have said that they want to be involved in finding solutions to these pressing concerns.

For Bielefeldt, assessing the progress human rights groups have already made in the last six decades only requires a little imagination. Try to picture the world without groups such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, he said.

"If you were to imagine for a moment that all of those didn't exist, then we would be much more helpless when it comes to handling of human rights violations in the world," Bielefeldt said.

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