In 1948 member states of the United Nations met and 48 of them ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Its signatories hoped that:
“… every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”
The UDHR is a declaration of intent and not legally binding. Its purpose is to try to define what fundamental freedoms and human rights are. Far from all nations have agreed on those definitions or even the need for a declaration of human rights. Even the countries who ratified it often do poorly in ensuring their national state upholds its principles if those principles go against tradition, beliefs or current regulations. When signatory member states are as varied as the People’s Republic of China, Norway and Syria, it is no wonder that the road traveled has been filled with potholes.
Originally, the UDHR was written in English but has later been translated into 500 languages. Language is a powerful tool. Definitions matter. Nations need to know what is meant by a concept or they risk endangering relationships with other nations. The UN created the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights to help nations and individuals understand the UDHR. The first article of the UDHR states:
“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.”
What do concepts such as “free”, “equal”, “dignity”, “reason”, “conscience” and “spirit of brotherhood” mean? A common thread seems to apply regarding the implementation of Article 1. We have a long way to go.