December 21, 2018

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70

Aleppo bombed to pieces. Human rights activists have drawn the attention of the UN and other organisations to the constant violation of human rights in Syria, but not much has changed.
Aleppo bombed to pieces. Human rights activists have drawn the attention of the UN and other organisations to the constant violation of human rights in Syria, but not much has changed.

Despite the existence of human rights, atrocities have not been prevented, even since the Second World War.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This milestone gives us a reason to look back over the development of human rights, but also at the state they are in today and the changes the world might have to face. Anyone familiar with the subject has probably noticed that the situation has worsened during the last few decades—in the world as a whole, of course, not in Estonia. The global human rights situation is nothing to be happy about and there are also no good ideas in sight about how to fix this.

On 10 December 1948, members of the UN voted on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Forty-eight states voted in favour, none against, and eight abstained: the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the USSR and Yugoslavia. Naturally, the countries who chose not to vote came up with different excuses and justifications, but glancing at the list we can see that they were countries where human rights were quite blatantly violated.

The UDHR is not a convention, an agreement or a resolution; it is therefore non-binding. Most of the countries that exist in the world today were not able to take a stance on the declaration since they were not on the world map in 1948. Estonia is one of them. However, this does not mean that the UDHR has no influence on international law or the catalogue of human rights in national law. On the contrary, its influence is enormous. A large number of binding international legislative acts are based on the declaration and democratic countries have incorporated the principles of human rights into their constitutions.

Not all countries believe that the principles of the UDHR should be followed. In reality, only a third of countries respect human rights, and even among those many have reservations. In 1990, member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which makes many adjustments concerning human rights. According to the Cairo Declaration, human rights are given by God (Allah) and they are seen as a responsibility before God and freedom means surrendering to the will of God. Freedom of religion and women’s rights are much more restricted in the Cairo Declaration than in the UDHR, and the Cairo Declaration is based on the Quran and sharia, while the UDHR is seen as a Western expansionist and colonial policy based on Western values.

According to the UDHR, human rights are rights that are given to each person at birth and their goal is to secure a decent life and dignity for all. They are based on the understanding that a human being is a moral creature and that dignity is a part of humanity. Human rights do not depend on the race, nationality, gender, religion, language, birthplace, origin, age or values of a person, or other circumstances. Human rights are universal and inalienable and belong to everyone equally. Thus, they are based not on specific laws but solely on the fact of a human being’s existence. Human rights are supranational, and the state has no right to restrict them with reference to sovereignty or internal affairs.

The development of human rights can be divided into three stages: divine and natural law, national law and international law. Even though the concept of human rights came into being much later than the concept of law, the development of law throughout history influences the development of human rights either directly or indirectly. We can go back to the Code of Hammurabi or the laws of Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome and conclude that some of the laws written at those times concern the rights and responsibilities of people. According to medieval notions, people’s rights came from God, so the people had no right to decide over them. In this context we could also mention some great Christian thinkers, such as Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. England’s Magna Carta, dating back to 1215, prohibited taking away a person’s freedom without a decision by a court of law. The Enlightenment replaced divine law with natural law, allowing Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau to view human rights as natural law.

In the sense of written, and in part also international law, the Peace of Westphalia signed in 1648 concerning the freedom of religion and abolition of slavery can be considered the starting point of human rights. The United States Declaration of Independence (1776) stated that all men are free and equal before the law; it secured the freedom of religion, freedom of expression and protection of property. Those principles were transferred into the US Constitution. In the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen set by Revolutionary France in 1789, the equality of people and the protection of individual freedom were noted among others. The Congress of Vienna condemned slavery in 1815, although slavery was only actually abolished in European and American countries gradually and in the course of strong domestic political battles over the course of the 19th century.

During the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, many conventions related to human rights were adopted. These include, for example, the establishment of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Berne in 1919, and the Geneva conventions on the treatment of the wounded, prisoners of war, civilians, etc. (1906 to 1949). The League of Nations was established during the peace negotiations of 1919 in Versailles. This transnational organisation tried to take on many tasks in the protection of human rights, even though this was not stressed in the organisation’s mandate. However, the need to protect minorities and religions was mentioned in the Covenant of the League of Nations. The League condemned slavery in 1920.

The League, which was created mainly to avoid future wars, was unable to prevent the emergence of hostile totalitarian regimes, massive violations of human rights, and a new world war, which was more global and had a greater death toll than all previous ones. The Second World War also ended the League of Nations itself, which existed on paper until 1946, but had already ceased all activities by 1940. During the final stages of the war, the eventually victorious Allies tried to establish a new organisation which would continue to execute the League’s ideas, thus creating the United Nations. In addition to the military victims, wartime atrocities began to come to light—enormous violence towards the civilian population, such as the Nazi Holocaust against Jews and Gypsies, but also inhumane behaviour towards the citizens of many other occupied territories, particularly the Slavic peoples; and, on the other hand, crimes against humanity committed by other parties, especially the USSR—mass executions, deportations, the Gulag slave camps, resulting in an extensive wave of refugees towards Western Europe. For those reasons, the founders of the UN saw a need to create an international framework for the protection of human rights, which would be based on the equality of all people. This resulted in the UDHR in 1948. Despite being non-binding, it was one of the most visible UN initiatives, expanding its authority and having a remarkable political and moral influence on the world order. The declaration was the first international document focusing exclusively on human rights and opened the way for future binding legislative acts.

The establishment of international human rights regulations was led by Europe—or, more specifically, the democratic countries of Western Europe. One of the goals behind the foundation of the Council of Europe (CoE) was to secure human rights and fundamental freedoms. During its establishment, a strict principle was followed of including only democratic states with the rule of law. For that reason, the USSR and its Eastern European satellite states were left out. One of the first initiatives of the Council was to adopt the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) in Rome in 1950 (it entered into force in 1953). This was binding on CoE member states, was more specific than the UDHR, and incorporated measures for protecting human rights. On the basis of the ECHR, the European Court of Human Rights was established in Strasbourg. While the court dealt with only a few complaints in its early years, today it is overwhelmed. The convention was later supplemented by several new protocols, such as on the prohibition of the death penalty and the right to free elections. Estonia signed the convention immediately after joining the CoE on 14 May 1993, and had already signed up to most international human rights law beforehand. For example, on 21 October 1991, Estonia acceded to 11 human rights conventions.

Provisions on the protection of human rights are also included in the European Union’s Treaty of Lisbon, which gave legal force to the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Article 2 of the treaty states that

The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.

Regional international acts on human rights have also been adopted outside Europe. The best-known is the aforementioned Cairo Declaration of 1990.

Human rights are usually divided into groups, such as civil rights, rights guaranteeing freedom, political rights, and economic and social rights. The main human rights are the right to life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of opinion and expression, the rights to peaceful assembly and association, movement, work, rest and leisure, education and a fair trial, and to found a family. Refugees also have the right to asylum, nationality, protection of property, etc. Torture, slavery, etc. are prohibited.

Many researchers dealing with human rights are of the opinion that human rights should not be regarded as hierarchical, which would mean that some human rights appeared to be more important than others. There is no consensus on this matter. There are also various approaches over the differentiation of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Some think that they coincide, while others believe that human rights are guaranteed by relevant international law and fundamental freedoms are in turn guaranteed by the constitutions of individual states.

Unfortunately, the ideas written in law do not often go hand in hand with reality. International declarations and conventions have neither been able to put a stop to the violation of human rights nor secure actual equality and respect for freedom. After the adoption of the UDHR, gruesome atrocities still took place, with millions of casualties.

Here are just a few: the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China, crimes against humanity carried out by the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia, wartime atrocities in Vietnam and the Cambodian genocide organised by Pol Pot. Little is known about the Kim dynasty’s crimes in North Korea and crimes against humanity carried out by Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein in Syria and Iraq respectively.

As recently as the mid-1990s, the Rwandan genocide caused over a million casualties, and a civil war claimed several hundred thousand lives in the heart of Europe, in the former Yugoslav Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The genocide in Darfur, Sudan also claimed hundreds of thousands of lives less than 15 years ago. Sadly, there have been more tribal wars in Africa with an enormous death toll. Some instigators of crimes against humanity have been brought to trial and have been convicted. The tribunals in Rwanda and Bosnia worked quite effectively. The International Criminal Court established in 2002 by the Rome Statute also got off to a promising start. However, many large powers, such as the US, Russia, China and India, did not join, and many African countries have left. The Arab Spring in 2010 saw the start of new conflicts affecting many Middle Eastern states, developing into civil war in several of them, causing great suffering to civilians. The violation of human rights became commonplace. The civil wars in many of those countries, such as Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria, continue without an end in sight. It is feared that we will see many more massive violations of human rights in the coming years. In addition, the actions of Russia-supported separatists in south-eastern Ukraine cannot go unnoticed. One of the consequences of acts of war and the violation of human rights is the migration crisis, which European countries are currently unable to handle.

Human rights have been in constant flux. New rights, especially social and collective ones, have emerged. Developments related to information technology and social media are new; privacy, identity and well-being are relevant issues today. The relationship between artificial intelligence and human rights will also probably be the subject of discussion. Some countries are also interested in handling migration in the context of human rights. Somewhat less attention has been paid to individual rights, since people assume these are a natural part of Western democracies. But in real life things are different.

The Arab Spring, the migration crisis and expanding terrorism have introduced several topics into the discussion on human rights that were not topical before, at least not to such an extent. I would like to point out some of these.

The universality of human rights. This is normal in Western societies, but not necessarily recognised as generally applicable elsewhere. The sharp conflict particularly concerns the freedom of religion and gender equality. Many countries view universality as the expansion of Western values.

Hierarchy of human rights. In the context of terrorism in particular, the question has been raised whether some human rights can be restricted to protect others. Are the right to life and the right to social security equal? Can the right of assembly and the right to freedom of expression be restricted in order to prevent incidents threatening people’s lives and safety? What should be done when there is a conflict between guaranteeing different human rights?

Human rights and sovereignty. This is an old topic which is seen in a new light in the context of international terrorism. It is the responsibility of the state to guarantee the security and rights of all people, not only vulnerable groups. But the guarantees in the refugee convention are often abused. What right does a country have to decide, based on its sovereignty, how to detect refugee status and to establish who is a refugee and who is pretending to be one in order to try and gain access to the labour market and social security?

Equal treatment. Should people belonging to risk groups be subject to greater control—for instance, people with noticeably extremist tendencies?

Are human rights ideological? Right-wing researchers stress individual rights and freedoms, left-wing researchers collective and socio-economic ones.

Indigenousness versus multiculturalism. To what extent does the native population have to adapt to the views of immigrants, and to what extent must immigrants respect local customs and adapt to them?

There are no good answers to these questions, but leaving them unanswered poses a threat to human rights and their protection. Answers must be sought—both here in Estonia and in the wider world.


The Estonian Institute of Human Rights in Tallinn organised its eighth annual international human rights conference, in which participants sought answers to the above questions and many more. The conference was held on Human Rights Day, 10 December, giving reason to focus on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to look at the past and the future of human rights.



Oliver Loode, Manager of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples (MTÜ Põlisrahvaste arengu keskus)

The human rights situation in the world is, indeed, deteriorating. I can’t agree with the opinion that this doesn’t concern Estonia. What occurs in the world also has an impact on Estonia, the more so because the human rights climate has worsened not only for the “usual suspects” but also for our allies, including the US. The situation cannot be assessed only in the context of isolated breaches. Not only the state and citizens, but also employers and employees, men and women, and even students need to foster a human rights mindset. This is also referred to in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “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.” Things are not that good concerning the spirit of brotherhood in Estonia. The state doesn’t directly breach human rights, but a human rights mentality, including the understanding that these rights are universal, doesn’t go deep enough in Estonia. The erosion of such thinking (reflected by the increasing frequency of hate speech) is just a step away from breaching human rights.

I’d also like to point out that collective rights are not primarily a left-wing issue. This is especially not true of the rights of indigenous people. The basis for their human rights is the right to self-determination, which is the most important of the collective rights. Let us bear in mind that the Estonian nation has justified its statehood using the right of self-determination several times in the past. Human rights and their protection is not a right-wing or left-wing issue, but a general human concern.


Mall Hellam, Executive Director of the Open Estonia Foundation

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets a framework for the legal and value space in which human rights are protected, and one of its purposes is to guarantee the strength and independence of civil society. Even though we have better opportunities and means to protect human rights than at any previous time in history, the currents of global politics influence reality in the world in general, as well as in Europe in particular; in many countries, extremist political forces are restricting the activities of the voluntary sector. Even in many Western countries, the understanding of the universality of the rights that form the backbone of the declaration is crumbling and being replaced with a hierarchical attitude.

Restricting constitutional institutions like the judiciary and independent media directly influences the ability to guarantee the values set out in the UDHR and their realisation. Non-governmental organisations are in an especially difficult position, as they run into trouble with the authorities due to laws restricting the protection of various groups in society and become vulnerable themselves. In order to make sure that the principles of the declaration are better protected in the European Union in future, EU legislation and its working mechanisms need to be modernised so that member states honour both human rights and the independence of the voluntary sector.

One doesn’t need to be a fortune-teller to foresee the potentially catastrophic impact of climate change that creates major refugee flows. In addition, we need to agree what will happen with the declaration’s principles in the context of AI, genetics and the development of medicine. Internet-related and privacy issues must be also solved. The availability of information is no longer a problem nowadays, but a person’s right to receive unbiased facts and the skill to recognise its manipulation is directly related to better civic education and knowledge of human rights. This was relevant 70 years ago and it is even more so today.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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