Seventy-five years after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, much still needs to be done to defend and strengthen the institutions of global governamce and confront the catastrophes of our time, writes Magdalena Sepúlveda.
Seventy-five years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the international community is again challenged to cooperate or perish. This statement by the Chilean diplomat Hernán Santa Cruz, one of the intellectual fathers of the UDHR, has acquired heightened meaning in Africa and everywhere else because of the extreme suffering of civilians caused by the wars in Ukraine, the Middle East, Sudan, the Sahel, Afghanistan, and beyond.
The UDHR was humanity’s response to the “disregard and contempt for human rights (which) have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”. It affirmed “the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear”. It embodied rights that the United Nations Charter adopted in 1945 to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, promote social progress, and improve living standards. Founded just three years earlier, the United Nations was the only forum in which all countries could come together to discuss common problems and find shared solutions for the benefit of humanity. Its three pillars remain respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, maintenance of peace and security, and sustainable development.
Regrettably, these goals are still aspirations, and global solidarity seems to have receded. In addition to the horrors experienced by the victims of wartime atrocities, large segments of the world’s population live in fear of misery, and the world confronts several simultaneous crises: an unprecedented level of inequality, the triple planetary emergencies of climate change, pollution and loss of biodiversity, receding civic space, the COVID-19 pandemic (from which we have not yet recovered), and the risk of new epidemics. Together, these crises hold a sword of Damocles over humanity.
Once again, women and girls suffer disproportionately and unequally. The sexual assaults on women during Hamas’ brutal attacks on Israeli civilians on 7 October are a shocking example of this.
The International Criminal Court is investigating mass rapes and alleged reports of violence against and affecting children in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Women and children also account for two-thirds of those killed in Gaza by Israel’s devastating military response. In this bombardment, two mothers are killed every hour and seven women every two hours, while the rest survive in panic and anxiety. Survivors have been forced to flee their homes and seek protection in overcrowded shelters without food, water, medical supplies, or privacy, increasing the risk of death and further sexual violence.
In common with other conflicts, the wars in Ukraine, the Middle East, Sudan and Ethiopia have multiplied the number of widows, women who overnight become household providers, obliged to ensure the survival of their family members alone and in fear.
Seventy-five years after the UDHR was proclaimed, the pursuit of gender equality remains elusive. The UN has warned that, if current trends continue, more than 340 million women and girls – 8 per cent of all women worldwide – will live in extreme poverty by 2030. Nearly one in four will endure moderate or severe food insecurity.
Without global agreements, the effects of wars and crises make a decent life unreachable for most people. It is imperative to restore the moral and legal foundations of the international system, which rests on respect for human rights, the principles of multilateralism, the values of democracy, and a rules-based global order. We cannot passively accept the dilution of the principles of the UN Charter and disregard for the rights enshrined 75 years ago in the UDHR, because all nations share these values and norms.
In our context, adherence to the legal principles of human rights, which underpin humanist values, becomes an obligation rather than a choice.
All societies should respect the inherent dignity of every human being, while inter-State relations should respect the principles of equal rights, self-determination and international cooperation: these values must guide legal and economic conduct, because they create the conditions in which it becomes possible to achieve stability and sound international governance, discourage conflict, and reach equitable solutions to crises, including the climate emergency.
Resolution on taxation
In this context, a recent initiative of the United Nations, championed by Nigeria and supported mainly by countries of the global South, offers a shaft of hope. On 22 November, states passed a historic resolution on international taxation. It introduced a process that could bring the discussion on global taxation from the OECD, a club of rich countries, to the United Nations.
This resolution, promoted by African states and other emerging countries, aims to create a convention on international tax cooperation. This would open a path to building a fairer and more inclusive international tax system, one that does not benefit rich countries alone or increase the wealth of the few but provides sufficient resources to developing economies, which are the big losers in the current system.
The US and some of its allies voted against it at the UN last month. But since even advanced economies require resources to address inequality, they will probably become involved at some point during the process. If the negotiations for such a convention go in the right direction, it could lead to higher tax revenue and, thus, more resources to invest in public services and development. The key is to ensure that corporations pay a fair proportion of their income in tax and the revenues are distributed fairly among states.
At first sight, this may seem a small matter in the face of today’s threats. But the truth is that it responds to a historic demand of the global South and can give multilateralism a fresh start. It proves that the United Nations is still a forum where we can cooperate not to perish, as my compatriot Santa Cruz pointed out.
Eleanor Roosevelt, Chair of the UDHR Drafting Committee, once said: “It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” Today, this means defending and strengthening the institutions of global governance and taking practical steps to confront the catastrophes of our time, promote social progress, improve living conditions, and protect human rights for all.