All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
These words, from the very first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, set the tone for the rest of the document. Sixty-nine years ago in Paris, the United Nations General Assembly adopted this Declaration, and the human rights regime as we know it was born. The world’s most translated document, the UDHR proclaims the inalienable rights of all human beings.
Why does this matter? Why should we remember and celebrate this day? Why are we still talking about this?
Because the timing of the UDHR was no accident. It did not come unprompted and unsolicited from nowhere. The UDHR, like the United Nations itself, rose from the ashes of the Second World War. It entered into force just three short years after the end of the bloodiest war in the bloodiest century in human history.
The twentieth century saw the very worst of humanity on countless occasions. French soil was ripped apart and irrigated with the blood of young men; blazing firebombs wreaked destruction upon German cities; human beings were herded into cattle trucks to be exterminated and burned. Nine-year-old girls had napalm seared into their flesh. Women were raped by their countrymen as a strategy of genocide.
Historians of the century to come will shake their heads and wring their hands in despair at the horror of ours.
This history is heavy. It becomes heavier still with the knowledge that we have not yet learned from it.
But we get to write what happens next. We are the authors of this century.
We have seen the products of the international human rights regime. Around two-thirds of states in the world have abolished the death penalty, in law or in practice. The twenty-first century has seen almost thirty countries legalise same-sex marriage. The number of countries where an equal number of boys and girls attend school has increased by nearly 75% since the turn of the century. Since the creation of the UDHR, more than 60 further human rights instruments and documents have been born. The progress is visible and tangible.
We also recognise the work that must still be done, especially today, especially in light of all of the darkness.
Happy Human Rights Day. Remember what came before us. Take stock of what’s happening all around the world today. Never forget that we have the power to create change.