50th Anniversary of the 
Universal Declaration of Human Rights

On 10 December 1948, the United General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations."  This Declaration was the starting point for the development of modern international human rights law and procedures and the massive human rights movement of today.  The 50th anniversary of its adoption is, therefore, a time for celebration and 1998 has been proclaimed the Human Rights Year.  However, it is also a time for sober reflection and assessment of what has not been achieved, and an opportunity to pick up again the challenge of trying to put the Universal Declaration into practice in a world where many serious and large-scale violations of human rights still occur.  

The achievements include the adoption of the many human rights treaties at both the international and regional levels, including the American and European Human Rights Conventions, the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, the International Covenants on Civil and Political and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Conventions against Torture and on the elimination of Racial Discrimination, on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and on the Rights of the Child.  States who become parties to these treaties accept obligations to account for their treatment of all who come within their jurisdiction to international or regional bodies.  The success of the standard-setting process has led to the point where there is general agreement that the proliferation of procedures requires some reforms to the system as a whole : a process which has been set in motion by the 1997 UN Commission on Human Rights. 

In parallel with the standard-setting, starting in 1980, the United Nations established "special procedures" to consider particularly serious problems in any country whether or not it was a party to any human rights treaty.  Amongst these are the Special Rapporteurs on Summary Executions, Religious Intolerance, Torture, Sale of Children, Contemporary Forms of Racism, Independence of the Judiciary, Freedom of Expression and Violence against Women, and other procedures on Disappearances, Arbitrary Detention and on Internally Displaced Persons. 

The newest development, although the idea dates from 1947, is the creation of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, following the World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna in June 1993.  The creation of the High Commissioner not only raises the profile of human rights, it provides the possibility for action on human rights questions without specific instructions from one of the UN bodies. 

 At the international level there will be a number of specific occasions or events culminating at the UN General Assembly in New York on 10 December 1998.  Important as such high-level events may be, the real significance of human rights has to be measured by the actual situation in individual countries.  The 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration should therefore be viewed less as a celebration of a past event than as an opportunity to make progress on, and to raise awareness about, human rights.  

For more information visit the website of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights/Centre for Human Rights (http://www.unhr.ch)