Humanity’s Rights: Reflecting on the Universal Declaration of Human Right

Humanity’s Rights: Reflecting on the Universal Declaration of Human Right

To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity” Nelson Mandela.

The 10th of December is recognised internationally, as Human Rights Day, a day celebrated annually since its inception in 1948. It was on this day, 70 years ago that the United Nations General Assembly established the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The ideology underpinning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a simple, yet profound one which proclaims that all human beings are born free and equal with dignity and rights. The UDHR contains thirty articles detailing diverse rights. They encompass the rights to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and a great deal more. The UDHR is important for being the first enunciation of human rights at a global scale. The formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the result of the second world war. The impact of the war on nations necessitated a unity of people through declaring the rights of all human beings. The premise was that fundamental rights would guarantee the absence of similar atrocities in the future. Indeed, these fundamental rights have been globally implemented in international treaties for which many countries are signatories as well as their national and state laws. In essence, it is around these core rights that human rights norms are established.

On the 70th anniversary this year, the day is marked by the UNs’ Human Rights return to the previous ‘Stand Up for Human Rights’ campaign. This seeks to advocate for everyone to stand up for their rights and those of others. Commenting on Human Rights Day, The High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet said “the preservation of the human rights set out in the Declaration is vital to each and every one us – woman, man and child … I urge everyone to use the UDHR’s 70th anniversary to reflect on what rights mean and think of ways we can actively stand up for the rights of not just ourselves, but of everyone else”. The day is also important for promoting awareness of human rights to which all individuals around the world are entitled. By definition, human rights, are “rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status”. Therefore, human rights are characterised as non-discriminatory and universal as well as being inalienable, interconnected and indivisible.

When the UDHR was signed it was stated by the delegates that the intended purpose was not to be a binding treaty but rather a statement of principles. Eleanor Roosevelt, an American political figure and former first lady played a pivotal role as Commission Chair in the drafting of UDHR. Her hopes for the UDHR is that it would “become an international Magna Carta of all mankind”. Presently, the constitutions and laws of over 90 countries have entrenched in them, the UDHRs basic principles. The UDHR has also lead to the creation of important international treaties such as Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child; and the United Nations Convention Against Torture. In addition, the UN created the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Culture Rights to give the UDHR the force of law. These treaties contain a list of human rights which government must respect, protect and fulfil. These two treaties along with the UDHR form the International Bill of Human Rights.

Human rights in Nigeria

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. … Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” Eleanor Roosevelt

On the 70th anniversary of Human Rights Day, it seems appropriate that we reflect on Nigerians commitment to human rights. Indeed, the UDHR is proclaimed as a “common standard of achievement for all people and nations” towards which individuals and societies should “strive by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance”. Hence national actions are, to a large extent, responsible for upholding human rights. Commitments to human rights are evident in a nation’s involvement in human rights treaties, as well as the strengthening of national institutions linked to the full observance of human rights and the rule of law.

In Nigeria, the human rights of Nigerian citizens are declared in Chapter IV of the 1999 constitution, the supreme law of Nigeria. In the constitution, humans are entitled to the right to life, dignity, personal liberty, fair hearing, privacy, freedom of thought conscience and religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, freedom from discrimination, acquire and own property.

However, Chapter II of the 1999 constitution which lists objective and directive principles of State Policy contradicts Chapter IV as it is not justiciable. The chapter demonstrates that conditions are, in fact, not made for an individual to fully exercise their human rights. Where S.16 (2)(d) states that the state shall direct policy toward ensuring “that suitable and adequate shelter, suitable and adequate food, reasonable national minimum living wage, old age care and pensions, and unemployment, sick benefits and welfare of the disabled are provided for all citizens”. This is not the case for many as the World Bank reported that 53.5% of the population at 2009 were living in poverty. Notably, more than half of the country’s’ population are thus not enabled to exercise their human rights and because the constitution is not justiciable, can therefore not hold the government past or present for failing to meet this policy goal accountable.

In spite of the existence of these rights and despite making laws, the government does not fully enforce the laws it makes. An example is the American Human Rights report of 2012, which identified issues within the human rights landscape in Nigeria. In this report, Boko Haram was identified as the most dominant example of violations of human rights in the country. This is evidenced by their killing of numerous civilians, abduction of women and girls, conscription of young men and boys and destruction of schools, villages and towns. In addition to this, the declaration’s intent of providing a fixed meaning to an ideology is one that does not resonate in Nigeria. Instead, fundamental and deep-seated issues such as persistent gender-based violence and discrimination, political violence, the conduct of security forces, attacks on press freedom combined with poverty all exist. With poverty and corruption pervasive in Nigeria, it will seem that only wealthy individuals are advantaged to be able to truly exercise their human rights and indeed deploy powerful legal armada when such rights are violated.  The National Humans Rights Commission (NHRC) has reported approximately one million cases of human rights violations in Nigeria between 2017 and 2018. On a global scale, human rights issues which directly or indirectly affect Nigerians include freedom of expression, inequality, violence against women, gender pay gaps and rights to privacy.

In addressing human rights as the theme of this year’s Human Rights Day it is suggested that it is also an individual responsibility. In order to further our own development at individual and community levels, our knowledge of human rights are the first steps. Certainly, the UDHR prides itself on having a far-reaching impact by being available in languages used daily by millions around the world. This includes Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Fulfulde, Ijaw, Idoma and Nigerian pidgin English. Overall the UDHR is transcribed into over 500 languages for which it holds a Guinness Book of World Record title of being the most translated text in the world. Furthermore, informing or teaching other individuals we encounter on their rights is an encouraged practice. These can help some identify when their rights are either being violated or have in fact been, as many overlook these issues.


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