15 December, 2023 by Annie Sharples, JPIT intern
What is the Declaration and where did it come from?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was written in 1948, following the devastation of the Second World War and the atrocities and absolute horror of the Holocaust. The United Nations was established in 1945, and the UDHR was announced just three years later, on 10 December 1948.
The Declaration is a list of 30 Articles outlining freedoms and rights that every individual should have, regardless. These rights includes civil, political, social, cultural and economic rights, such as the right to asylum, freedom from torture, education, free speech, social security, liberty, health and life.
The first Article states that:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”
This is followed by Article 2 stating that regardless of who you are, where you come from, what you believe, how much money you have and how you identify, these rights and freedoms apply to you and to everybody.
It was compiled by representatives from the 50 states of the UN, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, who said this during one of her speeches in 1958, talking about human rights:
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
The UDHR is so significant, as it is human beings that are the sole focus, not nations, power, wealth or politics, but the protection and prioritisation of every single individual human life.
- Universal: this means it applies to all people, in all countries around the world. There can be no distinction of any kind: including race, colour, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national or social origin, of birth or any other situation
- Indivisible: this means that taking away one right has a negative impact on all the other rights
- Interdependent: this means that all of the 30 articles in the Declaration are equally important. Nobody can decide that some are more important than others.
Human Rights issues just as relevant today
Modern Day Slavery
Article 4 of the UDHR states that: ‘No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms’
Almost 50 million people live in modern slavery, all around the world and including in the UK. About a quarter of victims of modern slavery are children. Anti-Slavery.org defines different types of slavery, with the most common being:
- Human trafficking
- Forced labour
- Debt bondage/bonded labour
- Descent-based slavery
- Child slavery
- Forced and early marriage
- Domestic servitude
Slavery is a problem across the world, including in the UK, where many people experience human trafficking, bonded labour and forced labour.
In the UK, we also enable forms of slavery by buying products that support businesses and supply chains that exploit people somewhere along the line. Many of the most famous clothing brands have been accused of profiting from forced labour, from modern slavery. This includes Shein, Boohoo, H&M, Levi’s and Zara. A Guardian article from 2020 stated that ‘Many of the world’s biggest fashion brands and retailers are complicit in the forced labour and human rights violations being perpetrated on millions of Uighur people’. Many of the leading clothing and fashion brands use cotton and other materials produced through forced labour of 1.8 million Uighur and other Turkic and Muslim people in prison camps, factories, farms and internment camps in the Xinjiang region. You can find out more about this in JPIT’s Forced Labour in Fashion campaign. Brands who a human rights coalition of 180 human rights groups state source materials from this region include Gap, C&A, Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. It is not just China where this happens. India, Myanmar and Bangladesh also see incredibly oppressive conditions for workers, so that brands can make huge profits whilst selling clothes at a cheaper cost.
It is not just the fashion industry; technology, food and tobacco companies, the construction industry and farming are all guilty of exploiting workers, using modern slavery and violating human rights.
Our capitalistic, globalised and fast world means that profits are constantly prioritised above working conditions, pay, and workers’ welfare. It means that many of us are ignorantly supporting modern slavery.
The importance of Fairtrade in the fight against modern slavery is huge. Fairtrade works with workers to improve their living standards, invest in communities and businesses and protect the environment. Fairtrade does this by ensuring workers receive a fair pay and experience fair production standards and practices. Fairtrade sets social, economic and environmental standards for companies and farmers involved in the supply chain, including the protection of workers’ rights and the environment, and a fair pay.
Fairtrade helps ensure that workers are not victims of modern slavery, and we as consumers can support this initiative and workers, by choosing to buy products with the Fairtrade mark.
Freedom to Protest
Article 19 of the UDHR states that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression’ and Article 20 states ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association’. These two articles are relevant when thinking about the right and freedom to protest, which has become a source of controversy and discussion in the UK over the past few years.
In April 2022, the UK Government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (“Policing”) Act came into effect, changing the justice system and giving police more power, ‘undermining the freedom of expression’, Amnesty International claimed. In this Bill, various changes were made, giving the police more control and decision power, and making protesters, and even people who are not deliberately protesting, more at risk of being caught and subject to police conditions. You can read about all the changes here. When these changes were introduced, Parliament’s joint committee on human rights (JCHR) said that many of the clauses should be scrapped, as they risk breaching rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Harriet Haman, chair of JCHR said: ‘One of our most fundamental rights is to protest. It is the essence of our democracy. To do that, we need to make ourselves heard. The government proposals to allow police to restrict ‘noisy’ protests are oppressive and wrong’.
Further to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, the Government has brought in the Public Order Act 2023, which introduced Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs). This gives courts the power to impose requirements or prohibitions on individuals in relation to protests, you can read about this here.
Freedoms of expression and assembly are much more restricted in other countries and places, with more breaches of the UDHR seen in places like Russia. The Russian authorities have been seriously cracking down on freedom of expression since 2012, so much that anyone voicing even mild criticism of Russia’s policies or economic situation, see their free speech denied, as well as those more obviously opposing Russian politics or policies.
The Right to Social Security
Article 22 of UDHR is this: ‘Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security’. Article 25 of UDHR states that ‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of [them]self and [their] family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control’.
These articles essentially define the qualities of the modern welfare state, such as pensions for the elderly, health insurance, disability payments for those who are disabled or injured, benefits for mothers like maternity leave, and many other things. These articles also assert that economic, social and cultural rights are indispensable for human dignity and development of the human personality. Social security should aim to relieve (and ultimately, end) poverty, help with the maintenance and redistribution of income, and help meet additional costs such as childcare, or for disabilities. Often governments do this by encouraging individuals to work in order to support themselves financially, change any behaviours that impact negatively on personal finance, and pay taxes.
Focussing again on the UK, the poverty levels have been increasing for a number of years, and are still on the rise, with over 14.4 million people living in poverty in the UK in 2021/22. The UK was criticised by the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier De Schutter, who said that the UK was ‘in violation of international law’ over the poverty levels. De Schutter reminded that the UK had signed an international covenant, which made social protection and an adequate standard of living for everyone, a duty. He stated that this covenant had been broken and that the welfare payments of £85/week are in ‘violation of article nine of the international covenant on economic, social rights. That is what human rights law says’. Clearly, this is in violation of the UDHR, with so many people in the UK, and across the world, not experiencing adequate social security.
War and the Arms Trade
Although the UDHR itself does not mention war and the arms trade, war and weaponry often affects the human rights of those living or working in areas of conflict. War and violence commonly take away ‘life, liberty and security’ to which every civilian has a right to (Article 3 of UDHR), and wars often include inhumane treatment of prisoners or people from opposing sides, breaking Article 5 of UDHR. War and conflict also sometimes affects freedom of movement, of Article 13, and strips people of their property (Article 18) as well as impacting many other freedoms and rights.
The Arms Trade Treaty makes reference to international human rights law when outlining principles for export and export assessment in Article 7, 1 b (ii). The key stipulation of this article requires an exporting State Party, when determining whether to allow an arms export, to assess the potential that the arms could be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international human rights law, among other things, as well as the potential that the arms would contribute to or undermine peace and security.
The UK claims to be the second largest exporter of defence items in the world, after the USA. Between 2012 and 2021, over half (51%) of UK defence exports went to the Middle East, 16% went to North America and 13% to Europe. In 2022, the value of UK arms export licences more than doubled, making it £8.5 billion, with Qatar and Saudi Arabia being the two largest arms buyers.
The JPIT partner churches have raised awareness of arms exports to Saudi Arabia at a time when Saudi Arabia and allies were bombing Yemen, lacking discrimination of their targets. British arms export licences to Saudi Arabia were ruled unlawful in June 2019, where the court concluded that no attempt had been made to examine the bombing of civilians by the Saudis. Sales and exports were resumed, and this decision is being challenged again by CAAT, on the basis of human rights violations and breaches of humanitarian law.
So what now?
Despite the UDHR being a ground-breaking piece of work and set of standards, there is still much cause to hold it to account today. As Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged, we must start in places close to home, in our communities, our workplaces, churches, constituencies and grow outwards. If equality, justice and human rights cannot be seen there, then there is no chance of wider change.
“Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
We cannot take current human rights standards (and current interpretations of the UDHR) for granted. International norms and conventions are undermined by behaviour of states as much as they are set out by public dialogue and global agreement. While these norms and rights should not be capable of being taken away, in reality their power relies on the support of governments. This is problematic in our current context, as governments seem to be able to get away with fundamental abuses in war without sanction.
We must speak up for human rights in both war and in peace, for ourselves and for others. It is our duty as people of faith, and as fellow human beings, to actively work for justice, freedom and equity for all.
You can read more about any of the issues mentioned above in the links mentioned in the sources below. Have a look at our previous blog post about the UDHR, looking at the theological aspects and the Christian influences of the human rights declaration, find it here.