Do we weep or rejoice? The 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Jemina Holmberg, the Foundation’s Programme Manager for Human Rights challenges us to live up to the ideals set out in the Universal Declaration of Human rights.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In recognition of this milestone, The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recently launched a year-long campaign to call attention to its historical legacy and continued relevance. The underlying incentive is an effort to ‘reset, strengthen and further develop the remarkable human rights infrastructure’ that has been built and to ‘rekindle the spirit, impulse and vitality’ leading to its formation in 1948.

Like all anniversaries, this one rightfully calls for reflection. Does the track record of the United Nations’ work on human rights make this a moment to weep or rejoice? History shows that the human rights pillar, perhaps more than any other area of the organisation’s work, has struggled with issues of politicisation, legitimacy and underfunding. At the same time, it has generated some of its most transformative advances leading to increased recognition and enjoyment of human rights around the world. Weeping and rejoicing it seems. But most importantly, rekindling of the 1948 spirit to reset and carry on.

I joined the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in the autumn of 2022 to lead the Foundation’s work on Human Rights and Inclusivity. If I look out the window from my new office and squint towards the pink castle up on the hill in front of me, the place where he spent most of his childhood and youth, I see him several times a week. In my mind’s eye Dag is slowly walking down the hill, a stack of books under his arm, inhaling the scent of the lilacs and looking up at the swallowtails flying low in the sky due to the impending rain. He is on his way to the university unaware, of course, of what life will have in store for him. And unaware also of the person he will be and, because of it, the role model in whose footsteps so many will aspire to follow. Like me, the person now working in his name in a house right between his childhood home and grave.

‘Human rights were one of the first ideological contexts spilling into my consciousness and it became a real driving force to choosing a path of studying and working with international relations.’

It’s all in my imagination, of course, but I like the notion of destiny having brought me this way. In my youth, I liked to pretend that Dag Hammarskjöld and I shared a kind of spiritual bond spanning time and space. In the simplified train of thought of a young person, deeply upset about the realisations of the world’s inequalities and injustices, Hammarskjöld’s legend shined a light on the way as I set my mission to make the world a better place. Having had the privilege of growing up in a family that moved from Sweden to Saudi Arabia, Madagascar, Japan and Oman, there was an early awareness within me of the differing realities and opportunities facing people dependent on birth contexts. I was acutely aware of the stark contrast between my own privilege and the often-bleak outlook for many around me. Human rights were one of the first ideological contexts spilling into my consciousness and it became a real driving force to choosing a path of studying and working with international relations. At the time, in my mind, the United Nations was the epitome of ‘goodness, courageous action, cooperation and, not least, hope’.

While lofty ideals are enough for a teenager looking for meaning, it soon became apparent that the loftiness of human rights work was all too common also in the real world. The significance of the adoption by the United Nations of the UDHR in 1948, the first step towards the universal protection of fundamental human rights, cannot be stressed enough. Drafted by representatives of different cultural and legal backgrounds as a response to the horrific war crimes committed during the holocaust, for the 75 years of its existence, it has served as the foundation for codifying human rights at the global, regional and national levels. The achievement was, and remains, enormous.

‘…And to be honest, the human rights situation in the world at the moment is a real mess, isn’t it?’

Still, many claim the UDHR is only aspirational without real mechanisms for accountability. A normative framework to be referenced when suitable but ignored when needed. Pulling the human rights card, adding the human rights language, expressing the dedication – political or moral – to the norms is easy, and often expected. But who monitors the distance between words and deeds? Who judges those resorting to strategic neglect? And how can we succeed when there is no universal morality prescribing right and wrong human conduct? And to be honest, the human rights situation in the world at the moment is a real mess, isn’t it?

On the one hand, there are some pretty gloomy facts and figures to deal with. The 2022 World Inequality Report tells us that the poorest half of the global population barely owns any wealth at all, possessing just 2% of total global wealth, whereas the richest 10% own 76% of the global wealth. As pointed out in the Oxfam report, ‘Inequality Kills’, the 10 richest men in the world own more than the bottom 3.1 billion people. If these ten men would spend one million US dollars a day each, it would take them 414 years to spend their combined wealth. Alternately if they would sit on top of their combined wealth piled up in US dollar bills, they would reach almost halfway to the moon. As economic disadvantage is closely interrelated with other systems of oppression, it is even more alarming that while the wealth of these 10 men has doubled because of COVID-19, the incomes of 99% of humanity are worse off.

Democratic gains are backsliding in many places, not least due to measures introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic as ‘necessary’ restrictions weakening the rule of law and hindering free speech. Autocracy is making gains against democracy, where examples can be found in all regions of the world with the decline of political rights and civil liberties following.

A global food, fuel and finance crisis with widespread ramifications currently holds a grip on the world where millions of people risk falling deeper into poverty and other types of insecurity. Increased geopolitical competition among powers with very different views of states’ sovereignty and human rights obligations and the rise of populist, xenophobic movements in many countries are very real threats to the safeguarding of human rights. In addition, new challenges have arisen since 1948, where new norms need to be agreed. Climate change, for example, has significant implications for the attainment of a number of human rights. New emerging and digital technologies is another area where there may be implications for human rights connected to digital surveillance, biased algorithms, hate speech, data protection (etc).

On the other hand, who said it would be easy to universally agree on a set of fundamental human rights? Let alone to implement them? Over the course of human history, 75 years is a drop in the ocean. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a child, or even a baby. We need to nurture it, support it when stumbling and encourage it when failing based on the belief that policies grounded in human rights always shape greater justice, equality and dignity. In no way does this mean we can sit back and wait. On the contrary. But in our efforts, we also need to recognise that our collective normative framework is a real achievement, despite its flaws and challenges.

‘We the peoples, that means all of us.’

 I am certain that Dag Hammarskjöld rarely gave in to defeatism. His dedication to the UN Charter was unwavering and ‘Leave it to Dag’ became a popular expression in the UN Head Quarters when a particularly difficult task was mounting. In his wisdom and dedication, he would know what to do. However, working for human rights cannot be left to the UN alone. Commitments originally made in the UDHR are now fundamental parts of several UN processes and agendas, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Framework for Sustaining Peace. One of the core objectives of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation is to strengthen these ongoing multilateral processes seeking to advance human rights, improve early action and re-assert respect for agreed international norms.

But again, it cannot be left to the UN nor to member states alone. It can certainly not be left to all the millions who risk their lives daily to fight for rights they are entitled to but cannot enjoy. You and I need to act.

We the peoples, that means all of us. And the obligation rests heavily on those who already enjoy their human rights, who are entitled and able to act in their own free will. We who have the right to vote for parties who value human rights. We who have the freedom to assemble and join organisations demanding change. We who have the freedom to speak our mind, show support, post whatever we want in social media. We who run the big companies and can secure that our ways of doing business is in respect of human rights. We who have the assets to travel halfway to the moon, it is for us, as well, to be the change.

Jemina Holmberg By Jemina Holmberg

About Jemina Holmberg

Jemina Holmberg is the Foundation’s Senior Programme Manager for UN Leadership. She brings extensive experience as a manager and expert in the Swedish civil service. Jemina held various positions in the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the Swedish Armed Forces Headquarters and she worked as the Chief of Staff of the Uppsala County Governor and  the County Administrative Board.

She holds a master’s degree in International Studies from the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, a Bachelor of Science in International Relations from the London School of Economics and completed the Diplomatic Training Programme of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.