The human rights project, then and now

by Dr Bertrand G. Ramcharan Blog, Blog, By invitation, By invitation

The 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be celebrated on 10 December, 2023. It is timely to look back at human rights project at the start of the UN and to reflect on where it should go next.

In 2005 the World Council of Churches (WCC) published a remarkable book by  John Nurser, For All Peoples and Nations. Christian Churches and Human Rights.[1] It provided an insightful account of the role of the WCC, its Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA), and the latter’s Director, Fred Nolde, in the origin and shaping of the UN human rights project, notably the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The WCC, the CCIA and Nolde strove for a framework of values, laws, and policies applicable to all peoples and nations, building on the foundation of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. Their vision, which they sought to be elaborated by a future UN Commission of Human Rights, envisaged an International Bill of Human Rights with effective measures of implementation, including through enforcement by an international court.

The WCC believed that human beings possess human rights as their birthright, and are accountable and obligated to live up to them simply because they are human, not because they are Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, or Muslim, or member of any particular religious or philosophical tradition. It thought that the progress of all societies had to go forward as an enterprise of law. The WCC sought to contribute to the establishment of a global order in the United Nations Organization that would give a new authority to human rights.

On the eve of the San Francisco conference, in 1945, the WCC recommended the following for the UN Charter:

“(1) A Preamble should reaffirm those present and long-range purposes of justice and human welfare which are set forth in the Atlantic Charter and which reflect the aspirations of people everywhere. (2) The Charter of the Organization should clearly anticipate its operation in international law and should provide for the development and codification of international law, to the end that there shall be a progressive subordination of force to law; …and (5) A special Commission on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms should be established”.

After the adoption of the Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the WCC began to think that a global ethos of human rights had come to be seen as a credible goal whose achievement would benefit men and women of any faith, and which would be the precondition of a durable global order.

Fred Nolde was the central actor of the churches in the new UN Commission of Human Rights after it was established. Nolde saw UN activities falling into two categories: remedial or curative actions; and preventive or constructive actions. Remedial or curative actions were needed in respect of tense situations and their solutions. Preventive or constructive work should guard against problems. He thought that the human rights provisions of the UN Charter – and later the Universal Declaration – fell into the category of preventive or constructive work. He attached great importance to education about human rights and he saw a leading role for UNESCO in human rights education. He thought that “If respect for human rights is to be effectively promoted, ultimate reliance must be placed on education rather than on legislation.”[2]

Nurser wrote in For all Peoples and All Nations:

“The passage of the Universal Declaration on December 10 was indeed a date to remember. If it is not now part of the syllabus of every schoolchild in the world, as specifically mandated in its Article 26(2), that is a very serious charge against those who work in schools…”[3] Alas, it is not.

And the state of human rights in the world presents many challenges. Humanity is battling climate change, rising oceans, pandemics that threaten the global population, widespread poverty, inequality and discrimination, conflicts, terrorism, the decline of democracy world-wide, oppressive, dictatorial or populist governments, and pervasive gross violations of human rights.

How should one think about the human rights project of the future? We must, perforce, emphasize survival and livelihood rights. Here, we have tentative foundations with General Assembly declarations on the rights to a safe environment, to peace, and to development. These are no longer esoteric rights but are central for the preservation of the earth, humanity, and international cooperation for human welfare.

We must monitor the impact on human rights of developments in bio-engineering and in the use of artificial intelligence. Francis Fukuyama drew attention to the challenges to humankind of bio-engineering in his book, Our Post-Human Future. Henry Kissinger and others, in their recent book, The Age of AI, called for attention to the need to establish new normative frameworks to deal with the intersection of humans and computers. Stephen Hawking had already done this earlier.

Then we have to insist on the duty of every Member State of the UN to comply with international law generally and with international human rights law in particular. We must work for the emplacement ,and enhancement, in every country of the world of an adequate and effective national human rights protection system. Without adequate and effective national human rights protection systems in every UN Member State, the human rights project begun 75 years ago will be lost. And, as Fred Nolde advocated, education about human rights must be a central part of national human rights protection systems.

The 75th anniversary of the human rights project and of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights must be the occasion for a global push for human rights education in all institutions of learning world-wide.

Dr Bertrand Ramcharan, Previously First Swiss Chair, and Professor of International Human Rights Law, Geneva Graduate Institute. The author performed the functions of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2003-2004.

[1] Two decades earlier, J,S,  Nurser had published “The Reign of Conscience: Individual, Church and State in Lord Acton’s History of Liberty. New York, Garland Press, 1987.

[2] For All Peoples and Nations, op. cit., p. 154.

[3] Ibid., p. 168

Featured picture: Chalking the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 2015

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