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75th Anniversary of the UDHR in Geneva: Strengthening national human rights systems will require breaking structural barriers


Geneva, 11 – 12 December 2023. Marking the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights extended a global invitation to a high-level event culminating in the ‘Push for Pledges’ campaign. The campaign garnered over 148 pledges which, in aggregate, showed popular trends and common omissions.   

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights came in 1948 as a historic expression of resolute international commitment to peace, justice and human dignity. Seventy-five years later, the United Nations counts almost four times as many member States as the original signatories of the declaration and the human rights corpus has evolved along with the narratives surrounding it. On the 11th and 12th of December 2023, the United Nations in Geneva saw States as well as civil society organizations and businesses reflect on this historical turning point and the road ahead.  

Formulating our renewed commitment

The pledging sessions of this anniversary event was a timely occasion to deliver an evocative picture of where the international community collectively stands on the advancement of human rights.  

To begin, encouraging commitments were widely taken by States across all regions, namely regarding disability, business and human rights, women and children’s rights, and engagement with civil society.  

Many States promised to enhance the protection of the rights of persons with disability, with a shared emphasis on their access to employment and on the strengthening of specialized institutions to mainstream disability rights. Certain countries also pledged to ratify the Optional Protocol of the Convention on the Rights on Persons with Disabilities which provides for an individual complaint mechanism and recognizes the competence of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to consider these complaints. 

The protection of the rights of the child was frequently included in the pledges as well. Four countries pledged to work on the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on a communications procedure. Overall, we can rejoice in the diversity within pledges related to children : Participation in decision-making, education (including human rights education), ending child marriage, sexual violence, protection in armed conflict were widely acknowledged across all regions.  

Similarly, the advancement of women’s rights took center stage. A wide and welcomed range of improvements were pledged from the civil and political rights of women to the fight against gender-based violence.  

In regard to the business and human rights nexus, multiple initiatives were presented, with pledges to draw up and implement action plans or national strategies on business and to promote due diligence or good business conduct, especially looking at the impact of business of vulnerable groups. In cognizance of the threats related to conflict and insecurity, the pledging session also saw a number of States pledge to ratify the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Less frequent but nonetheless welcomed were the several commitments to ensure access to justice and compliance with human rights in law enforcement agencies, as well as to combat corruption.  

Bolstering National Human Rights Systems

Overall, an overwhelming majority of pledges contained emphasis on non-discrimination, vulnerable groups and minority rights with many upcoming legislative reforms and national strategies underway. States appeared to fully embrace robust national human rights systems, including fully competent human rights institutions, national human rights action plans and mechanisms. In theory, this impetus represents an extraordinary opportunity to bridge the implementation gap and empower actors on the ground to pursue the full realization of their rights. It naturally comes hand in hand with two other constitutive elements that enjoyed high levels of support during the high-level event: civil society and international cooperation.  

Domestic institutionalization of international norms and standards is instrumental to concretize the enjoyment of rights within specifically local contexts. It is worth mentioning however, that the role of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) should only be understood as complimentary to the work of strong government bodies. NHRIs, through monitoring, training, legal aid, or evidence gathering, have the ability not only to claim the rights of the people in their countries but also to co-create legal procedures and mechanisms by which these rights can be protected, with the condition that the political environment is at a minimum conducive to such forms of dialogue and cooperation.  

Despite this optimistic projection, the gap between human rights theory and actual reality remains stark. It is worth asking to what extend national human rights systems will prove efficient in breaking cycles of systematic human rights violations when faced with procedural and structural barriers. Therefore, building capacity for civil society and human rights institutions should involve reinforcing their status so that the current harm-mitigating approach (or corrective approach) to human rights can evolve into a transformative one.  

National human rights systems cannot endlessly work against the current. A coordinated global strategy must accompany domestic incorporation of human rights. So far, the international community is still falling short on transforming trade and intellectual property rules and the global financial architecture; on tacking decisive measures to combat climate change; or on stopping proliferation of weapons and the intensification of conflict. Bottom-up incremental progress at the national or local level can certainly be amplified into systemic change, however, certain determinant sectors continue to remain hermetic to the call for reviving the UDHR.  

 Making multilateralism work means delivering on the promises to tackle these challenges at the root causes of injustice, inequality and violence, as a global community. 

Year of publication: 2023

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