With the Middle East on our minds how do we mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
By Alan Miller - posted on 21 November 2023
Questions on our minds that need answering …
Many questions are on all our minds as we mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 10 December 2023.
How can we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the UDHR as the world bears witness to the unprecedented scale of the relentless human suffering in Gaza and escalating attacks on Palestinian people in the West Bank as well as the atrocity and abductions carried out in Israel? Why doesn’t the UN Security Council uphold international law and intervene to stop the collective punishment of the Palestinian people as called for by the UN well before the current outbreak of violence? How should those in Hamas responsible for the attacks on Israeli civilians be lawfully brought to account in a way which avoids such catastrophic loss of life?
And some underlying questions…
Why has the occupation of Palestinian territory, confirmed by the International Court of Justice as unlawful, persisted for almost six decades now? How can we reach a just solution that enables Palestinians and Israelis to live in peace and security with equal enjoyment of their human rights?
These are only a few of the questions which agonise us.
We find that as we look for answers, we need to ask ourselves one further, if all too blindingly obvious, question …
Why do we continue to allow the United States – and China, France, Russia, and the UK as the other individual permanent members of the highest level decision-making body of the UN, the Security Council – to have the power to exercise a right of individual veto preventing the Security Council from consistently upholding international law, the law made by the UN itself, whether that has been in relation to the Occupied Palestinian Territory by the United States or by Russia in relation to Ukraine as well as by others historically? Why is this exceptionalism to the application of international law permitted? We have simply run out of road in merely raising the question and decisive action is long overdue.
Where a “culture of impunity” is allowed human rights violations will persist. This is the summation, as reported in 2022, of successive UN Human Rights Council Commissions of Inquiry relating to the Occupied Palestinian Territory over many years and which have found that both Israel and Hamas are likely to have committed war crimes.
Now, according to a wide range of UN Special Rapporteurs who are independent experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, there is increasing concern that the violations are escalating to the extent that there is a risk of genocide.
The failure then lies not in what the UDHR or international law stand for – whether international human rights or humanitarian or criminal law – but in the lack of sufficient accountability for failures to consistently uphold it.
Where then do answers lie?
Answers lie in strengthening the implementation of the UDHR and international law.
The experience of the past 75 years demonstrates to us that the UDHR has retained its validity, remains necessary for the progress of humanity and what is needed is to strengthen its consistent implementation and that of international law.
Born in 1948 out of the experience of the Holocaust itself, two world wars and the Great Depression it has been the continued inspiration for the development over subsequent decades of a series of core international human rights treaties which have improved the lives of people.
As evidenced by the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 it overcame the divisions and challenges of the Cold War which weaponised and distorted the development of human rights.
The universally supported Sustainable Development Goals of 2015 – the agreed roadmap for addressing such global contemporary challenges as poverty, inequality, conflict, and climate change – are underpinned by the values of the UDHR and the subsequent human rights treaty obligations of UN member states.
The UN General Assembly in 2022 historically declared the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right.
These advances have in large part come about due to the mobilisation and advocacy of global civil society and are being built upon by the upcoming generation.
This new generation has embraced climate justice – a human rights-based approach to climate change - as their banner for mass mobilisation on a global scale as well as the basis of increasingly successful legal challenges to hold those in power to account.
And yet, so much more empowerment and accountability are needed…
The International Criminal Court now has jurisdiction over the Occupied Palestinian Territory and is currently investigating the situation. The Chief Prosecutor, Karim Khan, declared last month that the investigation was a key priority of his office. There is no shortage of evidence but there is shortage of time before issuing arrest warrants for the alleged perpetrators of war crimes – both Israelis and Hamas - if the process is to have credibility.
The individual veto power held by the United States along with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council simply needs to be removed to enable international law to be consistently upheld.
Such steps would strengthen the consistent implementation of international law, help end the culture of impunity and significantly contribute to building a peace process which could enable both Palestinians – freely and democratically determining their own representatives in such a process - and Israelis to live in peace and security based upon equal enjoyment of the human rights provided by the UDHR and subsequent international treaties and which belong to us all by dint of our humanity.
This was the path successfully taken to bring an end to apartheid in South Africa. Indeed, it is an ironic coincidence that this year also marks the 75th anniversary of the formal establishment of apartheid in South Africa, just as it does the 75th anniversary of the Naqba for Palestinians.
The UDHR set “a common standard of achievement” for us all to strive towards. The past 75 years and current events demonstrate that this is a challenging and protracted journey. It is however the journey we all need to continue to take together as it brings out the best in humanity and is the call of our times.
Let me share with you a personal experience which inspired, stayed within me, and resonates ever more these days. It was when I was witness to a young female Palestinian lawyer give a call that it is….
“Better to light a candle than curse the darkness” …
My work had taken me to Ramallah in the West Bank. The Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association had mandated an Egyptian colleague and me to lead a week-long training programme on international human rights law with Palestinian lawyers.
No sooner had we outlined the proposed sessions when we were angrily challenged that it was our countries of origin and the UN human rights system which had betrayed them and so there was no point in continuing.
Although we made it clear that we both shared their view about this betrayal, an impasse was reached. At this point a young female Palestinian lawyer came forward, took the microphone out of my hand, turned to her colleagues, and quietly but firmly stated that she thought that it would be “better to light a candle than curse the darkness”.
She appealed to them to open their minds, be bigger and share her view that their struggles for justice would only be fulfilled if they helped to build a society based upon the UDHR.
This broke the impasse. There then followed a week of honest exchanges of experiences and learning from one another which led to their decision to seek cooperation with Israeli human rights lawyers in their common cause.
It speaks volumes that her quotation about the candle was taken from what was said by a US representative to the UN about the contribution of Eleanor Roosevelt, another American, in the drafting of the UDHR.
Of course, many of us also like to quote Eleanor Roosevelt who asked the question of “where do universal human rights begin” and answered “in small places, close to home…” and that “without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
In Scotland, close to home, we are taking this action and keeping this candle lit through preparing the Scottish Human Rights Bill which is by far the most ambitious step on our human rights journey. It will incorporate a broad range of UN human rights treaties along with the right to a healthy environment and include effective implementation measures.
This will not only improve lives for everyone in Scotland but also reaffirm the UDHR, the UN human rights treaty system and the need for a strengthened international rules-based order based upon them so that everyone everywhere can lead lives of dignity.
It is a fitting way for everyone in Scotland to mark the 75th anniversary of the UDHR.
With the Middle East on our minds and while taking our steps forward in Scotland let us embrace the enduring internationalist vision and spirit of Article 28 of the UDHR which states that…
Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realised
and the founding Charter of the United Nations which opens by declaring that…
We the peoples of the United Nations determined…to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.
So, with a renewed spirit of this determination let us all celebrate the 75th anniversary of the UDHR.
Alan Miller is a senior independent expert with the UNDP Crisis Bureau and a former Special Envoy. Appointed by the then First Minister, he served as the Independent Co-Chair of the National Taskforce for Human Rights Leadership whose recommendations are now shaping the forthcoming Scottish Human Rights Bill. He was unanimously elected and re-elected by the Scottish Parliament as the inaugural Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission and was also the elected inaugural Chair of the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions. Now a Professor of Practice in Human Rights Law at the University of Strathclyde he is a member of its Centre for the Study of Human Rights Law. This is written in a personal capacity.