Page 180 - Week 01 - Wednesday, 10 December 2008

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(5) affirms that the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want is the highest aspiration of the common people;

(6) declares its own faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women; and

(7) recommits itself to the principles contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations and to their promotion within the Australian Capital Territory.

Today is the 60th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UDHR. When it was drafted, many people hoped that the UDHR would be the document through which the UN would preserve world peace, protect individuals from arbitrary and abusive exercises of state power and deliver equitable, economic and social development for all of humanity. This extraordinary level of expectation and idealism needs to be understood in context.

Much of the world had just been devastated by the Second World War less than a generation after World War I, the war to end all wars, had ended. Undeniable evidence had emerged of the horrors of the Nazi program involving the mass murder of various ethnic and political minorities, including Jews, leftists, homosexuals and gypsies. It was also obvious that many other governments and individuals had collaborated with the Nazis in their genocidal schemes.

The UDHR has already achieved much. It has strengthened the global fight against the death penalty and torture and for the promotion of equality for women and minorities. It has also decreased the likelihood that rights violations can be committed with impunity. Most importantly, it has united individuals around the world in the fight for equal access to human rights. It has inspired or been incorporated into the constitutions of approximately 90 countries, and it forms the basis of both the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

However, Claire Mallinson, director of Amnesty International Australia, has stated:

60 years after the UDHR was signed, people are still being tortured in at least 81 countries, they face unfair trials in at least 54 and are not allowed to speak freely in at least 77. The right to health, adequate housing, water, food and education are all protected in the UDHR. And yet every three seconds a child dies from poverty. Every night 800 million people go to bed hungry, and one in six of us live in slums. These are human rights scandals of shocking proportions.

Today is rightly a day of celebration, for much has been achieved under the auspices of the United Nations and the various legal, economic and social advances inspired and generated by the UDHR. But as is so often the case in the field of human rights, it is also a day of mourning for what could have been and what must still be striven for. The glass truly is only half full.

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