Human rights

After 70 years, does the Declaration of Human Rights still matter?

6 December 2018
Our experts look back at the impact of the Declaration
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) - the first declaration of universal human rights to be made by nations in concert - turns 70 on Monday 10 December 2018.

In the lead up to this anniversary, our experts reflect on the history of the UDHR, and why it is still relevant and important today.

A special Sydney Ideas event this weekend will also celebrate and critically reflect on the milestone and Australia’s own human rights record.

Why should we care about the 70th anniversary of the UDHR?

"At a time when the world’s governments are increasingly challenging the authority of the UN Human Rights Council, and the legitimacy of the concept of ‘human rights’ itself, it is worth remembering the impact the idea has had since it was first put on the international agenda," says Professor Glenda Sluga, the ARC Kathleen Fitzpatrick Laureate Fellow from the Department of History.

“Historians still debate when human rights as we know it became a shaping political ideal. However, we know that UN Declaration of Human Rights was provoked by the horror of the Second World War and the Holocaust more particularly as a way in which the world could confirm that the rights of the individual mattered more than the rights of states, and that race and gender discrimination should not prevail.

The Declaration of Human Rights was an important rallying point for women and indigenous activists who sought a voice in the public sphere that they could not find within the nation state.
Professor Glenda Sluga

In Australia, human rights has a deep social history, explains Professor Sluga. Famous Australians like Jessie Street and H.V. Evatt were important actors in the debates around human rights.

"Evatt was Chair of the UN General Assembly at the momentous introduction of the Declaration. Meanwhile, back home, individuals such as Michael Kirby remember discovering the Declaration through the modest leaflets announcing its principles and distributed at his primary school, as a life-altering moment. The history of human rights, is our shared history.”

Today, the rhetoric of state sovereignty and national interest have returned with a vengeance to justify the abuse of the rights of certain groups.
Professor Danielle Celermajer

A reaction to the horrors of the past

“The adoption of the UDHR was propelled by universal shock at the horrors of the Holocaust and the recognition that there needed to be some higher form of law," says Professor Danielle Celermajer from the Department of Sociology and Social Policy.

"There was a need for a global institutional order that would ensure that states could not abuse the rights of their own citizens under the guise of state sovereignty.

“Today, the rhetoric of state sovereignty and national interest have returned with a vengeance to justify the abuse of the rights of certain groups. But we also face challenges today that could not have been anticipated in 1948 – the massive flows of refugees, including environmental refugees, growing economic disparities and existential environmental threats.

“If we are to honour the spirit that catalysed the UDHR, we need to remember that its achievements are fragile and require constant replenishment. We need to turn our attention to what a framework of rights appropriate to today’s world would look like and require from states, citizens and corporations.”

When business infringes upon basic human rights

"Misconduct in financial services and behaviour that fails to meet community expectations are not just matters of legality and professional ethics: they concern infringements of peoples’ basic human rights," says Professor David Kinley and Dr Kym Sheehan from Sydney Law School.

"Analysing some 314 cases of misconduct of Australian banks and financial services entities as recorded by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) in the 20 months between 1 January 2017 and 3 September 2018, our results show that in all cases involving relationships between a financial services entity and its customers or clients (some 255 of the 314 cases), at least one, and in most instances, more than one of four identified human rights categories were adversely affected."

For more information, read Professor Kinley and Dr Sheehan's report Community Expectations: Putting People Before Profit Means Taking Human Rights Seriously.

Sydney Ideas: From good international citizen to pariah? The decline of human rights in Australia

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, former president of the Australian Human Rights Commission and former Dean and Challis Professor of International Law at the Sydney University Law School, Emeritus Professor Gillian Triggs will present a keynote address reflecting on Australia's human rights record, introduced by eminent Australian lawyer, jurist and reformer the Hon. Elizabeth Evatt AC and with a vote of thanks by Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, and Shadow Minister for Education and Training and Shadow Minister for Women the Hon. Tanya Plibersek, MP.

Sunday 9 December, 6-7.30pm, Seymour Centre, City Rd & Cleveland Street, Chippendale NSW 2008

Co-presented with the Evatt Foundation. Tickets available here.


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