In General Knowledge

What is Human Rights Day?

human rights day

When is Human Rights Day?

National Human Rights Day may as well be called World Human Rights Day as most countries recognize it as the 10th of December. Kiribata’s and South Africa’s commemoration dates are the 11th of December and the 21st of March, respectively.

What is Human Rights Day?

Human Rights Day centers around the United Nations and its dedication to world peace and human dignity. The atrocities documented during the second world war prompted the United Nations to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Human Rights Day, established December 4, 1950, commemorates this as the first official statement concerning human rights and establishes the newly founded organization called the United Nations. Resolution 423 (V) encourages all members of the assembly to participate and supports participation of others.

The office of High Commissioner for Human Rights plays a considerable role in coordinating annual events to observe Human Rights Day. It is celebrated the world over by cultural events, workshops, lectures, political conferences and meetings, and informative exhibitions. December 10 has also been designated as the traditional date for awarding the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights and the Nobel Peace Prize. Every decade additional effort is made to promote and expand awareness through campaigns supported by nations around the world.

The UDHR, dated December 10, 1948, was fostered by the General Assembly (a gathering of all the member states) of the United Nations. It consists of a preamble and thirty articles emphasizing the importance of human rights and affirming the principles of the United Nations Charter.

  • 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.
  • Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.
  • No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
  • Articles three through twenty-one cover political and civil rights, including the right to not be tortured. Articles twenty-two through twenty-seven address cultural, social, and economic rights, like the right to be employed, join trade unions, and participate freely in cultural events. Article twenty-six and twenty-seven deal with the right to an education. The remaining articles profess the right to enact these inalienable rights listed in previous articles.

This document is not legally binding, but it is generally acknowledged as the standard for acceptable treatment of human beings for nations around the world. It serves as a guide to help regulate the treatment of human beings and establish the responsibilities of others to those who suffer sub-human treatment. Besides the Christian Bible, it is the most translated document in the world.

Facts about the United Nations

  • The League of Nations was formed at the end of WWI as a part of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The League was charged with promoting international cooperation and achieving peace and security. It was disbanded when it failed to prevent the second world war.
  • US President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to use the term United Nations in a speech delivered January 1, 1942. The United Nations came together in opposition to the Axis Powers of Japan, Italy, and Germany, much like the League of Nations did previously.
  • The United Nations Commission for the Investigation of War Crimes was required to investigate allegations of war crimes against the Axis Powers. It was dissolved in 1949 after most war criminals had been located.
    • The Axis Powers implemented systemic hatred for and denial of human rights to particular ethnic groups.
    • Military tribunals and the Nurnberg trials were direct responses to their findings.
  • The U.N. becomes an official entity on October 24, 1945 when the Charter was ratified by France, the United Kingdom, China, the Soviet Union, the United States, and forty-five other member countries. It’s basic principles are:
    • Keeping peace throughout the world
    • Developing civility between nations
    • Helping nations to come together to improve poor living conditions that caused major social problems like illiteracy, disease, and hunger; and to emphasize mutual respect and acceptance of differences
    • Being a central figure supporting peace and harmony among the nations of the world

Establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a doctrine that directly resulted from the atrocities committed by the Axis Powers during World War II. It represents the intention of the United Nations and its member states to prevent such inhuman behavior to occur again.
  • The drafting and redrafting were the results of many debates about the meaning of words like human dignity, the connection between the individual, the state, and society, and the role of spiritual values in the welfare of society and the individual, to name a few.
  • It’s two most important considerations are the commitment to the dignity of human existence and nondiscrimination.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of the late president Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the chairperson of the drafting committee. Representatives from France, Lebanon, China and Canada made up the remaining committee, but Mrs. Roosevelt is credited as being the driving force for the adoption of the declaration. She was very instrumental in bringing East and West together for the signing.
  • Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, the Ukranian Soviet Socialist Republic, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa abstained from the vote to ratify the declaration.
  • The declaration has influenced a significant number of national constitutions since the year of its inception. It also popularizes protecting and promoting human rights in the language of quite a few national and international laws, and treaties.
  • An explicit purpose of the doctrine was to give meaning to the phrases “fundamental freedoms” and “human rights” as they are used in the United Nations charter.
  • The doctrine is a document of constitution. It is not a treaty or enforceable by law, but it is meant to be an obligation for all people toward all people.
  • The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are bound to the doctrine for their very existence.
  • Some countries that signed the declaration have inherent problems with it, particularly Islamic countries.
    • Saudi Arabia abstained from the vote claiming that the document violated Sharia law (moral code and law of a prophetic religion).
    • Iran deemed it “a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition.” They also saw it as a direct conflict of Sharia law.
      • Muslims are prohibited from leaving Islam. The penalty is death.
      • Various interpretations of Sharia law offer conflicting views among Islamic countries.
  • Many scholars have expressed concerns that the doctrine is contaminated by Western bias, a common problem since the onset of European colonialism and imperialism. It can be seen as an attempt to spread western influence under the guise of contributing to the greater good.
  • Some groups feel that the doctrine does not cover enough issues, and that the right to refuse to kill should be insinuated into the document.
    • Amnesty International and War Resisters International speak the loudest on this point.
    • They also believe that Article 18 touches on, but should explicitly address, the right to conscientious objection (the right to not participate in conflict based on moral conviction).
    • Steps have been taken to try to add more specific details to the articles.
  • Countless organizations support the UDHR. It’s most visible proponents are:
    • The International Federation for Human Rights, nonpartisan and nonsectarian, promotes compliance with the document.
    • Amnesty International advocates a live and let live philosophy all over the world.
    • Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is a non-profit, nonsectarian group that provides disaster relief while promoting social justice and human rights.
    • Quaker United Nations Office and American Friends Service Committee developed a program to introduce and connect young people to the importance of human rights advocacy.
    • American Library Association is more concerned with the right to free expression.

Previous Activities of Commemoration That Have Had Lasting Effects

  • The United Nations, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the African Union’s Commission on Human and People’s Rights collectively approved the European Union’s policy to protect human rights defenders, and encouraged other countries to do the same. (2004)
  • Taiwan – A demonstration was held to promote democracy as opposed to the single party regime already in place. Subsequent arrests and prosecutions of opposing politicians did not stop the incident from influencing political reform. (1979)
  • In 2008, the Secretary General of the United Nations was responsible for a year-long campaign to promote awareness and support for the idea of a universal recognition of human rights. The campaign concluded on December 10, 2008.
  • Argentina – Following an example set by President Raul Alfonsin, the country’s presidential inaugurations are held on December 10 to celebrate the end of a military dictatorship. (1983)
  • The United States – When Proposition 8 passed and renewed the ban on gay marriage and restricted heterosexual marriage, Human Rights Day was used to protest inequality. (2008)
  • An established universal theme seemed to focus on how technology affects the human rights defender. (2011)
  • Augusto Pinochet, human rights violator and former dictator of Chile, died on December 10, 2006. This fact is taken and used by some as a sign for the prosperity of the campaign for human rights.

Other Celebrated Dates

  • South Africa – March 21 is designated as Human Rights Day to observe the Sharpeville Massacre that took place in 1960. Black South Africans voluntarily turned themselves in when they refused to carry passes that allowed them to be in restricted public areas. Police opened fire on the crowd and killed sixty-seven unarmed men, women, and children. Some South Africans oppose the date because they feel that it perpetuates the problem of racism and is hypocritical to minority rights. This may be because South Africa joined the United Nations while simultaneously implementing Apartheid, government sanctioned racial discrimination. About the time the UDHR was adopted by the United Nations, South Africa was rezoning neighborhoods and actually forcibly moving people into segregated parts of cities. There have been so many atrocities committed against black South Africans since colonial imperialism in the seventeenth century, that many find the dedication to one incident an insult to the reality of the generations of tragedy people have experienced. They prefer to focus on the rights of human beings everywhere and not on the isolated events in their country.
  • Kiribati (an island nation in the central tropical Pacific Ocean) – December 11 is the designated day for Human Rights Day here. It is meant to pay tribute to the thirty articles of the UDHR, and to signify that enjoying these rights comes with the responsibility of securing them for other people. They believe it is important to emphasize the right to medical care, religious expression, education, and other basic human rights. It is celebrated as a public holiday.

Currently, poverty has been determined as the predominate challenge to human rights. The United Nations believes that making poverty a human rights issue will go far in eliminating a problem that is the source of so many others.

The slogan for Human Rights Day 2014 is Human Rights 365. It promotes the idea that every day is Human Rights Day, that everyone is equally entitled to the inalienable rights of humanity, and that this belief should bind us as a global society. Some ground gained in the past has been lost recently, but this only reaffirms the United Nation’s commitment to equality, dignity, and respect for human life.

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