Follow us on

values for our times

by Patrick Earle
01 December 2008
10 December 2008 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. Patrick Earle reflects on Australia’s role in fostering its development.

As President of the new United Nations General Assembly, Australia played a significant role in the development and adoption of what is perhaps one of the most significant and lasting outcomes of the most destructive war in history.

Drawing  on religious and cultural value systems from across the globe, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms the value of every human being.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was a significant milestone so far in global efforts to recognise and uphold shared values on human dignity and to put those values firmly at the centre of new arrangements for global cooperation. Drawing  on religious and cultural value systems from across the globe, the UDHR affirms the value of every human being. It was drafted in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the first use of nuclear weapons and the Great Depression that preceded that war. It was drafted in the full knowledge of what crimes governments were capable of and acknowledged what responsibilities governments have.

The UDHR includes economic, social and cultural rights such as the Right to Education and the Right to Adequate Standard of Living, as well as civil and political rights including the Right to Freedom of Assembly and Association and the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Expression. One of the great achievements of the UDHR is the extent to which it expresses Australian values – and the values of other societies and cultures.

Following the adoption of the UDHR, a framework of binding human rights agreements have been built. There are specific standards to eliminate racial discrimination and discrimination against women, to protect the rights of children and to abolish the use of torture. This process of standard setting has been a dynamic one, involving governments, academics, independent experts and NGO advocates with experience and knowledge of the issues. Most recently there have been Conventions agreed on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and to combat ‘disappearances’ of citizens by governments and their agents.

These human rights standards focus on, but are not limited to, the responsibilities of governments. Alongside these standards the beginnings of a system of accountability has also been evolving to try and hold governments accountable – UN Treaty Bodies, the UN’s Special Procedures on Human Rights, the International Criminal Court and the Special Tribunals on the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the new UN Human Rights Council with its new Universal Periodic Review Process. There is greater focus now being given to the human rights responsibilities of companies in recognition of the growth in power and reach of major multinational enterprises in particular.

The reality is that sixty years after the governments of the world recognised the value of each human being, millions of children go to bed hungry, while millions of parents do not know where their family will find safe shelter the next week, or the next night. More and more people have to make journeys fraught with danger in search of decent work. More girls than boys are still denied their right to education. Governments continue to arbitrarily detain peaceful dissenters and to torture and kill their citizens.

The promise of human rights is still too often honoured in its breach. Yet sixty years after Australia’s Foreign Minister, HV ‘Doc’ Evatt presided over the adoption of the UDHR, it is perhaps today more relevant than ever to a world facing major issues that reach beyond borders and that require solutions at a global level. In responding to the crises of climate change, poverty, financial crisis and threatened economic recession, the UDHR and the International Bill of Rights should be read again by all government leaders and officials. The values it expresses should be placed at the heart of their laws and policies.

Patrick Earle is a Board Member of the Asia Pacific Regional Resource Centre on Human Rights Education and Executive Director of the Diplomacy Training Program, an independent NGO that seeks to advance human rights and empower civil society in the Asia Pacific region through quality education and training ( ).