Celebrating the Creation of the United Nations

On 24 October 1945 the United Nations Organisation was formally inaugurated during a short ceremony at the US State Department in Washington, when twenty nine countries ratified the United Nations Charter. This post celebrates the most significant of the United Nations’ achievements – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.   

Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks that stand against ruthless power.        Aung San Suu Kyi

If the time comes when the history of humanity’s struggle to overcome the tyranny of people with dangerous personality disorders is written, a unique place in that story will be reserved for the negotiators of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Universal Declaration is the first ethical statement that collective humanity has ever adopted. It represents an historic change in how humanity approaches ethics. The rights established in the Universal Declaration were arrived at through rational debate, encompassing the entire global human community, and were aimed at protecting humanity from ever again descending into the barbarity that its drafters had suffered. It now provides the majority of humanity with an invaluable protection against pathological elites.

A Radical Vision

The Universal Declaration is founded on the radical vision of a just global society in which lasting peace can only be secured by allowing the free development of every individual. In adopting the Declaration, the nations of the world agreed that every person has the right to life, liberty and security of person; that every person is equal before the law; that everyone is entitled to freedom of conscience, of religion, of expression, and of assembly; and that every person is entitled to the right to work, to food, to shelter, and to education. It proclaims that these basic rights are necessary in order to enable every person to develop to their full moral, physical and intellectual potential.

In adopting the Universal Declaration, the world’s governments have agreed that these rights are universal and apply to every human being regardless of race, gender or social class and are not negotiable on the basis of traditional cultural or religious practice. Religious or cultural diversity, it asserts, can be only valid if as it does not betray our common humanity.

A body of international law and an array of institutions are now in place around the world charged with enforcing this vision. Three regional human rights systems have been established. The European human rights system is the most developed, and is centred on the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights, the first international court ever to be established to protect human rights. Regional systems are also in place in the Americas and in Africa. In addition, independent Human Rights Commissions have been established by many governments around the world to protect human rights within national boundaries.

The creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2001 marked a further significant advance in the international human rights system. The ICC has the jurisdiction to act when a state commits serious human rights abuses and is unwilling or unable to prosecute the perpetrators. The ICC has the potential to act as a powerful deterrent by finally ending the impunity for governments who use genocide, ethnic cleansing and other atrocities against their own citizens. In 2009 the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan for war crimes – the first time ever that the Court had indicted a sitting head of state. A second warrant followed in 2010 for charges of genocide. In 2012 the ICC issued its first ever verdict, convicting Thomas Lubanga Dyilo of conscripting child soldiers and using them in armed hostilities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2012 the ICC set legal precedent once again by sentencing Charles Taylor to fifty years in prison for aiding and abetting rebels who carried out atrocities in Sierra Leone during its harrowing civil war.

photo credit: On Being via photopin cc

photo credit: On Being via photopin cc

Fear is Changing Sides

The increasing power of international human rights law to defeat tyrants was captured succinctly by the newspaper Le Monde following the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998. ‘Fear, the means by which all dictatorships govern … is now no longer reserved for the victims,’ the paper wrote. With Pinochet’s arrest, ‘fear began to change sides.’ [1]

The Universal Declaration was negotiated by people from around the world who had just experienced the trauma of the Great Depression, the rise of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and the devastation of World War II.

They had seen tyranny rise from conditions of poverty, mass unemployment and widespread social unrest. They had lived under regimes that had crushed all opposition, denied the most basic freedoms of thought and expression, and attempted to control all aspects of people’s lives. They had seen these regimes commit unimaginable atrocities against their own peoples. The horrors of the gas chambers, tens of millions of dead, the total devastation of societies across Europe and Asia, and the invention and use of atomic weapons capable of previously unimaginable destruction – all of this they saw arise out of conditions of gross inequality and social unrest which had allowed murderous governments to seize power and brutalise their own citizens with impunity, before their evil spread beyond national borders to engulf the entire world.

These experiences convinced the negotiators of the Declaration that it was a dangerous folly to believe any longer that how governments treat their own citizens was a matter of domestic concern only. They were sickened by the horrors of the Holocaust and affronted by Hermann Goering’s assertion, made during the Nuremberg Trials, that the murder of six million Jews ‘was our right! We were a sovereign State and that was strictly our business.’ [2]

The lesson that the negotiators drew from this nightmare was that lasting peace had to be based upon the protection of the rights of individuals. The descent into barbarism that they had just experienced could be avoided again only by making individuals, not governments, sovereign. As Harry Truman declared, ‘The Charter is dedicated to the achievement and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Unless we can attain those objectives for all men and women everywhere – without regard to race, language or religion – we cannot have permanent peace and security in the world.’ [3]


[1] Quoted in Paul Gordon Lauren, The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003, page 269

[2] Quoted in Paul Gordon Lauren, The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003, page 202

[3] Quoted in Paul Gordon Lauren, The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003, page 197

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