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What’s so Significant About the Declaration of Human Rights?

Updated on May 18, 2017
Salma Hassaballa profile image

Salma Hassaballa has produced two documentaries & written books in multiple genres. She is a member of the Arab Writers Union.

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A couple of years ago the British Council was celebrating its 80th anniversary and on this occasion they published a list of the most significant moments of the past 80 years that helped shape the world on their website. These significant moments were selected by 25 eminent professionals in various fields and then 10,000 people from around the world voted to rank the final list. To my surprise, number four on the list was the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

My astonishment was not due to the lack of knowledge about the principles of human rights, but rather I was surprised to see that it ranked as number four on the list of the most influential events that took place in our contemporary world. I asked myself: was the Declaration of Human Rights really that influential? I believe any theory, project, method, system, or event, can only be successful, popular and eventually influential if it meets certain criteria such as originality and applicability; but, was the Declaration of Human Rights novel? Was it successfully applied?

Human Rights in Religions

Certainly, the principles of human rights including freedom of expression, civil liberties, prohibition of torture, respect of human dignity, prevention of child labor, social justice etc. are a few of the noble and honorable intentions of the declaration, but they are not novel. These principles were revealed more than a thousand years ago!

For example, the UN declared that freedom of expression is a right that should be given by governments to their citizens. However, Abrahamic religions included these principles long before they were drafted into international law. In Islam, for instance, freedom of thought and belief is repeatedly emphasized in the Quran:

“There shall be no compulsion in matters of faith… ” (2:256)

“And so (O Prophet) exhort them; your task is only to exhort; you cannot compel” (88:21-22).

In fact, freedom of expression is compulsory for every Muslim man and woman; it is an order from God to the believers to maintain and defend truth and justice, it is not just a grant given by authorities. The Quran goes on to say, “O you who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding equity, bearing witness to the truth, for the sake of God, even though it be against your own selves or your parents and kinsfolk.... “ (4:135)

Since human rights are enforced by God and his prophets, no one, no matter how powerful, and no government on earth, should have the right or authority to make any amendments or in any way change the rights conferred by God. Sadly though, the governments of many countries brutally suppress all political opposition and try to silence the masses through torture and imprisonment, and of course, this runs contrary to the teachings of religions.

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Beyond the Golden Rule

Holy messages have dignified humanity. For example, the Bible acknowledges man as God’s special creation, as it says that God created man in his image (Genesis 9:6), and the Quran holds man in great esteem, as man is recognized as a successor, a viceroy of God on earth (2:30).

Equity, justice, and benevolence are commanded in all religions. The golden rule in all revelations was, “Do unto others as you wish others would do unto you.” In Islam, Prophet Muhammad transferred this law into another realm of ethics when he said, “None of you has faith until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” [1]

And Jesus went beyond the golden rule by saying, “But to you who are listening I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you.” [2]

Religions teach that one should not discriminate based on race, gender, cultural background, or social standing. The Prophet of Islam was the first leader to establish a society that is based on a fair constitution (the Charter of Medina), the provisions of which was founded on the teachings of Islam. Moses and Jesus, before Muhammad, had professed the same values. The Charter of Medina (622 C.E) included the freedom of expression, freedom of religion, respect for women, prohibiting of racial discrimination, and even the protection of the environment.

Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights make any difference?

Today sufferings and devastations are becoming more noticeable due to human rights violations. Here are a few out of many:

1. Sadly, in the very same year that the Declaration of Human Rights was made, a huge transgression and injustice to a whole nation occurred when the Israelis occupied the Palestinian land by force in 1948 and again in 1967. This took place despite the fact that it is illegal under international law to acquire land by force. Although the Israeli approach was identical to that of the despised ISIS; they both used religion to wage wars and kill innocent people. However, the world was silent regarding the Israeli assault, and Palestinians were left to suffer the consequences. Since then, discrimination, unsettlement, attacks, confiscation of land, and torture of the Palestinian nation has occurred, and to this day has not been resolved.

2. A UNICEF report revealed that in the second quarter of 2013, seven hundred Palestinian children aged 12-17 were arrested by Israeli military and police in the occupied West Bank. These poor children were subjected to solitary confinement, threats of death and sexual assault. [3]

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3. The Massacres in Bosnia, which continued from 1992 to 1995, resulted in the slaughter of at least 7,800 Bosnians, and the disappearance of thousands of people whose destinies remain unknown to date, and the perpetrators remain free. [4]

4. Burma committed ethnic cleansing against thousands of Rohingya Muslims; 28 children hacked to death and mass graves uncovered. [5]

5. Approximately 1,500 excess deaths occur each week in the internally displaced person camps in Uganda. According to the World Health Organization, 500,000 have died in these camps. [6]

6. Torture was used against prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba without charge or trial, subjecting them to rectal feeding and rehydration, waterboarding (torture that stimulates drowning), sleep deprivation, forced nudity/humiliation, imprisonment in different confinement boxes, which caused difficulty in breathing, as insects were placed inside the boxes. These are some of the brutal techniques of torture that were used. [7]

7. The Czech authorities are violating the human rights of Romani children in schools across the country. Romani children are segregated in mainstream education in Roma-only separate classes, buildings, and schools and even placed in schools for pupils with “mild mental disabilities.” Those in ethnically-mixed schools experience bullying and harassment. [8]

8. More than 900 million people are starving around the world. Slums are shelters for one billion people. Every 90 seconds, a woman dies from complications of pregnancy or childbirth. [9]

And the list goes on…

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The Bottom line

As we see, the Declaration of Human Rights is a reinvention of an already-existing charter that applies to all humanity, and it has not provided actual protection to suffering people around the world. Since its decree we have continued to see a rise in the degradation of rights rather than the protection of the global population. Governments and the media however, keep parroting and echoing human rights principles while they are actually doing the opposite. Governments continue to abuse those who disagree with them, leaving many homeless and sick. The media echoes the voice of the government they represent or the entity whose values and beliefs they are made to echo. To rank The Declaration of Human Rights as number four on the list of the most influential events in 80 years cannot be further from the truth, and is offensive to any free man or woman. Not only were the ideas envisioned in the 1948 declaration not novel, they have remained mere theories that were never practiced by the majority of nations. Would it not have been better to reinforce values and faith in societies so that we could all live together peacefully knowing we are free to do so, or is the lesson here that laws are made for the convenience of a few but followed by none?

Do you think that Human Rights Declaration made the world a better place?

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References

[1] [Al-Bukhari and Muslim]

[2] (Luke:6:27-29)

[3] http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/14-shocking-global-human-rights-violations-2013

[4] http://endgenocide.org/learn/past-genocides/the-bosnian-war-and-srebrenica-genocide/

[5] https://uscampaignforburma.org/about-burma/conflict-and-human-rights/rohingya-ethnic-cleansing.html

[6] http://www.humanrights.com/what-are-human-rights/violations-of-human-rights/

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/dec/09/cia-torture-methods-waterboarding-sleep-deprivation

http://davidduke.com/abu-ghraib-wrapped-in-an-israeli-flag/

[8] http://www.amnestyusa.org/research/reports/must-try-harder-ethnic-discrimination-of-romani-children-in-czech-schools

[9] http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/poverty-and-human-rights

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    • Salma Hassaballa profile image
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      Salma Hassaballa 6 months ago from Egypt

      I believe that there are always double standards when it comes to consequences followed by human rights violation. Israel is not the only exception. People were silent if not supportive of the murder of whole nations of Iraqis and Afghans (half a million of Iraqis were killed and up to 21,000 Afghan civilians were slaughtered). See also the overlooked violations that are taking place day and night in the third world countries, they are many. I am sorry to say that I see actions like economic sanctions, etc. are only taken when it serves a certain political agenda.

    • John Welford profile image

      John Welford 6 months ago from Barlestone, Leicestershire

      Salma, You could say that about any international agreement - nations can promise all sorts of things and not fulfill their promises. However, nations can be subjected to criticism when they fail in their obligations, and that can lead to other consequences, such as economic sanctions, refusal to take their side in other matters, etc. I agree - a nation that is determined not to act in accordance with its promises can often get away with it, but not many wish to acquire the status of a pariah state - Israel is, as you rightly say, a notable exception.

    • Salma Hassaballa profile image
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      Salma Hassaballa 6 months ago from Egypt

      Thank you, John, for your comment, but please tell me, what’s the use of a warning not followed by an action? Unfortunately, countries that are reminded with their violation aggressively continue their abuse of human rights. Indeed the declaration is a positive step, but it is not enough, it is just a dream and free people around the world should collaborate to make it come true, that is why I wrote this article.

      In my view, things should be fairly credited. Stating that the major world religions thought of human rights first is a fact. So, there is no reason to deny a fact on the pretext of not denigrating the UDHR. And of course, human rights granted in religions are applicable to everyone and in all situations. This is how it is stated; do to others what you wish others would do unto you, it did not say do to believers or do to Jews, Christians or Muslims, but rather it takes everyone into account.

    • John Welford profile image

      John Welford 6 months ago from Barlestone, Leicestershire

      I think it is significant that such a declaration exists, because countries that abuse human rights can be reminded of the fact that they are violating principles to which they assigned their signature.

      Also, I do not see the point of denigrating the UDHR on the grounds that major world religions thought of it first. Morality is not dependent on religion, and must apply to everyone who is non-religious as well as people who are.