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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 21st Century

Gordon Brown

2. The Evolving Understanding of Rights

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1Globalization has changed the terms of interaction in global life, and it has created space both for implicit extensions of and explicit additions to the content of human rights doctrine. We recall that since 1948 there have been many other substantive human rights conventions that have addressed some of the issues we identify – including the rights of women, the rights of children, and the rights of the disabled. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize a number of rights that we think have come into clearer focus after 70 years and need more emphasis than they received in the Declaration. Some of these rights are mentioned in the UDHR, such as the rights of women, but we want to suggest that the language could have been more vivid in light of what we now know. Other rights, such as those related to sexual orientation, are not expressly addressed at all in the document, and involve a change in consciousness and concern since the UDHR was adopted. But it is arguable that even these can be understood as an elaboration of rights to personal freedom or autonomy that are in fact clearly affirmed in the Declaration.

2The suggestions below are preliminary and non-exhaustive, and many of them are controversial. We view our role as initiating a conversation on the challenges raised by particular issues, rather than trying to legislate definitively on the content of particular rights. Our aim is not to rewrite the Declaration or suggest amendments to it. Instead the Commission wishes to pay tribute to the enduring power of the original document, and draw attention to new issues that reflect our understanding of human rights today.

2.1 Rights of members of specific groups

a. The rights of women

3A large part of the world condones the systemic violation of the human rights of women on a daily basis – whether directly in the form of domestic violence, female genital cutting, forced marriage, and other forms of oppression, or indirectly in the way women have to bear the consequences of extreme poverty and a lack of access to healthcare and to safe water and sanitation. These indirect impacts on the rights of women also include, for example, traditional systems of land ownership and inheritance, economies that fail to ensure women can have enough income to support a decent standard of life from birth to old age, systems of family law that make it impossible for women to leave situations of violence, and attitudes with respect to employment that result in women being paid less for the same work and working disproportionately in informal and insecure sectors.

  • 1 The use of gender-specific language and assumptions in the UDHR – such as the language of “human br (...)

4The Commission wishes to highlight that the framers of the Declaration recognized in 1948 that gender equality was essential. Article 2 of the UDHR expressly held that “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as […] sex.” In light of the widespread human rights violations perpetrated against women around the Earth in the subsequent 70 years, it is important to reaffirm without qualification that the grounding of the UDHR in human dignity requires that all people – including all women – enjoy the rights set out in the UDHR, including the right to education, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the right to equal employment opportunities, the right to marry only with free and full consent, and the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.1 Women’s rights, including all rights recognized in the ICCPR and CEDAW, must be recognized as real and women must be respected by governments everywhere in the world as equal to men – irrespective of religions and cultures. Our point is that formal equality is not sufficient: as recognized by Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals, there is a need to actually achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. It is crucial to give attention to the gender impacts of systems and attitudes that are apparently “gender-blind.” The UDHR must be read in a way that highlights the specific impact upon women of certain abuses, certain attitudes, and certain forms of neglect.

b. The rights of children

5The UDHR does not expressly recognize the rights of children. In fact, it was not until the adoption of the CRC in 1989 that the rights of the world’s youngest were explicitly acknowledged by an international treaty. The CRC articulated, for the first time, that children possess innate rights equal to those of adults: rights to health, to education, to protection, and to equal opportunity.

6Nonetheless, a number of provisions in the UDHR are relevant to the rights of children. Article 25, the standard of living provision, recognizes that children are “entitled to special care and assistance.” Article 26 of the Declaration sets out the right to education. In fact, the education section is one of the most detailed provisions of the UDHR. And Article 16(1) of the UDHR, the marriage and family provision, reads: “Men and women of full age, without limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.” It is clear that the right of parents to found and raise a family is not only a right – it is also a responsibility. Consequently, the rights of children are not just rights in relation to governments: they are, in the first instance, rights in relation to their parents.

7There are different kinds of incentives for upholding the rights of children in different parts of the world. In some cases, both the child’s parents and the government keep their eyes closed to violations. Thus, in addition to recognizing the obligations of parents and governments, we should also acknowledge the responsibilities of the community at large, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

  • 2 It is worth noting that Article 1(d) of the UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery (...)

8No account of the rights of children would be complete without highlighting slavery. Children make up a substantial portion of the 35.8 million people that Walk Free estimates are enslaved around the world. While measuring this hidden crime is difficult, based on World Bank age distribution data and the Global Slavery Index, there are currently an estimated 8.7 million children in slavery. Slavery is expressly prohibited by Article 4 of the Declaration: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”2

9The Commission also considered the issue of child marriage specifically. Article 16(2) of the Declaration says: “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” However, in certain parts of the world, “free and full consent” is often assumed based on custom, culture, or tradition. And the assertion is frequently made that this is an instance of competing rights: the right of a child to marry freely, against the right to freedom of culture or freedom of religion. Indeed, there is a strong linkage between the existence of dual or parallel legal systems within a country and the prevalence of child, early, and forced marriages. While most national laws prohibit child, early, and forced marriages, in those countries where customary, tribal, or religious laws are a powerful civil force, they are sometimes abused to compromise or undermine national laws regulating marriage. These laws expose children to child marriage, and potentially condemn them to a life of poverty and violence.

10Custom, culture, and tradition may not legitimately dispense with the requirement of explicit individual consent. We insist that the rights of children (like those of women) can never properly be denied in the name of particular beliefs or cultures. A simple, positive statement should be made to young people that “you do not have to get married unless you want to.” On this view, the greatest hope for fulfilment of the Declaration is that the people, families, and communities most susceptible to human rights abuses begin to understand the Declaration, grasp it, and use it as their shield.

  • 3 Children from countries that have ratified the Third Optional Protocol to the CRC can submit a comp (...)

11The Commission wishes to advance a number of proposals that would strengthen the protection of children’s rights in the twenty- first century. At the international level, we propose the creation of a Children’s Court, with the power to receive and adjudicate petitions from children and their representatives on violations of the CRC, issue legally binding judgments, and investigate areas of concern including child labor, child slavery, and child marriage.3 The Commission also calls for the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute crimes against children within its remit to the full extent of the law. Further, we recommend that the UN Security Council convene a “Children’s Council” – an annual debate on children’s rights, building on its existing review of the issue of children in armed conflict. At the national level, the Commission urges states to create accessible complaint mechanisms for the resolution of violations of the rights of children, and to consider establishing a Youth Parliament, Children’s Commissioner, and dedicated Children’s Budget. We believe that these measures can play a vital role in realizing the rights articulated in the CRC.

c. The rights of the disabled, including the profoundly disabled

12The right to equality, enshrined in the UDHR, is as relevant to people with disabilities as it is to any other members of society. The UDHR makes no mention of human disability, apart from an oblique mention in Article 25, which cites a person’s inability to secure subsistence “in circumstances beyond his control.” However, in 2006, the UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which represents a paradigm shift in the global movement from viewing persons with disabilities as “objects” of charity, medical treatment, and social protection towards viewing persons with disabilities as “subjects” with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent.

13Speaking philosophically, disability may pose particular issues when humans lack the characteristics or capacities on which human dignity is usually grounded. And speaking practically, disability may require particular and if need be costly attention to the way in which rights are fulfilled. We believe it is vital to reaffirm the possession of human rights by all humans, including those suffering from disabilities.

14Disability covers a wide range of human situations, with loss of part of one’s capacities at one end (e.g., deafness, blindness, loss of limbs) ranging all the way through to a profound loss of cognitive capacity at the other. The Commission emphasizes the rights of people suffering from disabilities at each point on the spectrum, and the importance of taking reasonable measures to facilitate the exercise and fulfilment of such rights. Even when the disability is profound, we must respect the human lives and human needs of those who cannot participate with others on equal terms.

d. Rights related to sexual orientation

15It is important to highlight two particular omissions of the UDHR with respect to sexual orientation: first, that sexual orientation and transgender status is not mentioned in Article 2 – the universality provision – as a category that cannot justify a restriction of rights; and second, that Article 16 – the marriage and family provision – does not explicitly establish rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people to marry and to found a family. The omissions are understandable, as a new normative context around sexual orientation and transgender status has only emerged in the past 20 years.

16Nevertheless, the Commission wishes to address these omissions by affirming that: first, everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms enumerated in the UDHR without distinction based on sexual orientation or transgender status; second, Article 7, the non-discrimination provision, should be understood to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or transgender status; and third, Article 16 protects the rights of LGBT people to marry and to found a family. There is no getting round the fact that the controversy around same-sex marriage is a human rights issue. There is a need to acknowledge it as such and debate it as such.

e. The rights of prisoners

17Article 10 of the ICCPR establishes certain rights of prisoners that have developed as guiding norms of international human rights law. Some of these are specific, such as the segregation of juvenile from adult prisoners. Some are quite general, including the requirement that all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.

18The rights of prisoners have become a particularly acute issue in recent years with the emergence of new forms of detention as part of the response to international terrorism. The Commission believes that Article 10 of the ICCPR was right to make explicit these principles, which are essential to a just penitentiary system and a necessary complement to Article 5 of the UDHR, which prohibits cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

19From a human rights point of view, the scale of incarceration may be an issue, as well as the conditions that people face when incarcerated. Indeed, many of the concerns about the role played by factors such as race and drugs in sustaining disproportionately high levels of prison populations in certain countries are human rights concerns.

20Prisoners retain the bulk of their fundamental rights, with the exception of those rights directly affected by restrictions implicit in their incarceration. It remains debated whether rights such as the right to vote should be maintained by prisoners when they are incarcerated. The Commissioners accept that disagreement on this question may, depending on the content of the view, constitute reasonable disagreement. However, the right to vote should never be denied to people who have finished a custodial sentence on the basis of their having been convicted of an offense. The penalty for the crime is the custodial sentence itself. Beyond that, to deprive people of one of the fundamental democratic rights denies them the full citizenship to which all are entitled, and undermines the process of their social reintegration.

2.2 Rights of groups as such

21Human rights are in the first instance rights of individuals. However, human communities, human peoples, and human families are also possessed of human rights, and recent developments in human rights law have made this plain.

22Group rights are a difficult and controversial idea, but there is no doubt that some human communities are entitled to rights, whether conceived as the aggregate of members’ individual rights or the rights of the group as a whole.

a. The right to national self-determination, including regional autonomy and subsidiarity

23The UDHR makes no mention of national self-determination or the self-determination of peoples as a right. On the contrary, the UDHR still uses the language of colonialism, with Member States pledging to promote respect for human rights “among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.” However, both the ICCPR and the ICESCR recognize the right of “all peoples” to self-determination by virtue of which they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.

24The omission of the right to self-determination from the UDHR is understandable, as the decolonization movement largely occurred after 1948 (and before the adoption of the ICCPR and ICESCR in 1966). Nonetheless, international recognition of this right emerged swiftly, and the Commission believes that the wording in the first Article of each of the Covenants was an essential addition to the International Bill of Human Rights. Admittedly, the definition of “peoples” remains controversial in many circumstances, but the formulations of the Covenants point us to the fact that these controversies need to be worked out as human rights issues.

b. The rights of indigenous peoples

25Particular attention needs to be paid to the situation of indigenous peoples: those who were the original inhabitants of lands impacted by imperial expansion and colonialism. More and more efforts are underway nationally and internationally to take the rights of indigenous peoples into account. The UDHR’s emphasis on equality makes cultural protection a legitimate interest, and thereby provides a justification for such efforts.

c. Ethnic cleansing

26Ethnic cleansing was of intense importance in 1948, and is a matter of grave concern today, as recognized by its inclusion in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. It would be good for human rights declarations to embrace a clear and explicit understanding of ethnic cleansing as a grievous human rights abuse. It is important that human rights be understood not just for what they are, but also in the different modes in which they may be abused and violated, of which ethnic cleansing is one.

d. The rights of peoples prejudiced at the national or communal level by climate change

27Climate change is a genuinely new issue, which has emerged in the last 20 to 25 years. There is no way it could have been envisaged in 1948. It is, however, urgent for the international community to address it in 2016. Climate change may well turn out to be the most consequential global challenge of the twenty-first century. It will reshape the concept of global citizenship in a number of regards, but the implications for human rights will be severe and should command the closest attention and thought among human rights advocates.

28There are already, and there will be in future, massive implications for local and global economies, for human subsistence, and for migration. The impacts will not be felt evenly. For example, environmental migrants are often drawn from the most marginalized members of society, groups dependent on agriculture, populations in the least developed countries, in low-lying areas and coastal areas, and of course those impacted by national disasters. Increases in extreme weather events, the inundation of low-lying areas, and changes in patterns of weather affecting food production will all have a direct and also an indirect impact on people’s rights as they are understood in the UDHR.

2.3 Rights related to other issues involving vital interests

a. Migration

29The movement of people and peoples was an issue in 1948 and it is once again a pressing concern. The UDHR offers some resources for thinking about migration. Article 14, the asylum provision, provides that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” And Article 15 states that everyone has the right to a nationality and no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

30Migration has become salient in new ways in our time. First, its scale has multiplied since 1948, with the wave of international migrants anticipated to surpass 250 million in 2015. Remittances from migrant workers play a significant role in economic development, with more than 400 billion USD a year flowing in this way to developing countries. Well-managed migration has been recognized as playing a decidedly positive role in economic development.

31In 2015, conflict-related migration was at an all-time high, with worldwide displacement at the highest levels since records began. Much of this is the result of human rights violations in migrants’ countries of origin. In 2015, the number of displaced people was expected to exceed 60 million, compared to 37.5 million a decade earlier. Over 5 million newly displaced people were reported in the first half of 2015, comparable to the 5.5 million newly displaced for the same period in 2014. Every day in 2014, 42,500 people became refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced.

32Conflict‑driven migration has high human and social costs. In 2015, over one million people arrived by sea in Europe, and more than 27,000 made crossings by sea in South‑East Asia in the first half of the year, reflecting an explosion in the criminal trade of moving people from conflict zones for profit. We know this can have tragic consequences for some of the world’s most vulnerable people: more than 46,000 migrants have died along migratory routes since 2000, and more than 3,770 died crossing the Mediterranean in 2015 alone. Worldwide, the total number of deaths across migratory routes in 2015 was 5,400.

33Migration has enormous implications for the realization of human rights. While the UDHR applies to all persons irrespective of nationality or citizenship, in reality human rights are often inaccessible or denied to migrants. For example, refugees may be admitted to a country to seek safety but then denied the right to work. Migrant workers may be admitted to a country to work but legally prohibited from starting or joining trade unions. It must be recognized that those who move across state boundaries: retain their universal human rights and should be treated accordingly; have continuing rights in relation to their country of origin; have a right to security in transit, including freedom from forced or coerced movement; have a right to a fair and responsible process at borders and in all legal dealings with an actual or potential host country; and have a right to good reason for a refusal to allow entrance or settlement – refusal should not be based on ethnic, racial, religious, or other illegitimate discrimination.

34While there are large-scale and varied international movements of people in the contemporary world, states often seek to restrict migration on economic, cultural, security, or other grounds. There is no consensus on the balance between rights to movement and the power of states to restrict it. However, given the current situation, there is an urgent need for the international community to strengthen the international refugee protection system. Perhaps we should be looking for a new international convention on refugees and migration. In any case, we endorse SDG target 10.7, which calls for states to “facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies.”

b. Statelessness

35“Statelessness” arises when a person is deprived of a state and its legal system, which provides access to rights and remedies for their violation. Inasmuch as states have front-line responsibility for upholding the human rights of their citizens, stateless persons are deprived of the benefit of this responsibility. A person’s legal right and ability to access human rights protections often depends on whether or not they are a national or citizen of the country they are in. This is about both lack of certainty in law and also prevailing social attitudes.

  • 4 There are a number of causes of statelessness. Some countries do not recognize people from certain (...)

36Statelessness is not a new issue. Article 15 of the UDHR upholds the right of every human being to a nationality. Nonetheless, there are still 10 million stateless people in the world today, over a third of whom are children. And during the past five years, 20 percent of all refugees resettled by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have also been stateless.4

37Stateless people are deprived of rights that the majority of the global population takes for granted. Often they are excluded from cradle to grave – being denied a legal identity when they are born, access to education, health care, marriage, and job opportunities during their lifetime, and even the dignity of an official burial and death certificate when they die.

38In the last three years there has been a positive trend toward resolving statelessness, as 26 states have acceded to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Still, only 82 countries in all have acceded to the 1954 Convention and only 60 countries have acceded to the 1961 Convention. In November 2014 the UNHCR launched a 10-Year Campaign to End Statelessness, and the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme approved a budget of 68 million USD for 2015. There is much more to be done to deal with statelessness, ensure that every birth is registered, and prevent gender and other forms of discrimination in nationality laws.

c. Administrative justice

39The UDHR contains legality rights in Articles 8 to 11 but these mainly focus on criminal law. Given that administrative regulation is now pervasive, it is arguable that there should be a duty on bodies exercising governmental functions to act fairly, reasonably, and lawfully in decisions that materially affect an individual’s rights and interests, and to ensure that individuals whose interests and livelihoods are affected by administrative decisions have a right to be heard prior to the decisions being made and a right to challenge them where appropriate.

d. Corruption

40Corruption in the performance of state functions has been a problem since human governance began. Over the last 30 years there has been a rising awareness of the relevance of anti-corruption measures to the rule of law, state-building, and economic growth. The World Bank estimates that each year 20 billion USD to 40 billion USD, corresponding to 20 percent to 40 percent of official development assistance, is stolen through high level corruption from public budgets in developing countries and hidden overseas.5 The flow on effects for access to rights are enormous.

41The UN Convention Against Corruption, adopted in 2003, obliges State Parties to implement a wide and detailed range of anti‑corruption measures affecting their laws, institutions, and practices. These measures aim to promote the prevention, detection, and punishment of corruption, including domestic and foreign bribery, embezzlement, trading in influence, and money laundering, as well as the cooperation between State Parties on these matters.

42Corruption is inextricably linked to the violation of an array of human rights, including the anti-slavery provision, the freedom of movement provision, and the legality provisions of Articles 8 to 11; moreover, people are wronged when they are denied equal access to governmental services as a result of corruption. This illustrates yet again the interconnectivity of rights and rights violations, described in section 1.8. There is a need and a duty for individuals, states, and other entities to recognize and respond to the human rights impact of governmental corruption, and to work to bring it to an end.

e. Privacy from state or corporate electronic surveillance

43Article 12, the privacy and reputation provision, states that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy.

44In recent years there has been an exponential surge in the span and capacity of electronic communications, with concomitant opportunities for surveillance that can violate individuals’ privacy rights. State surveillance can be an important law enforcement and national security intelligence-gathering tool when governed by strong rule of law requirements. But surveillance also poses risks, not only to privacy, but also to the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, which increasingly are facilitated online and on mobile devices. Journalists, activists, government critics, and minority groups are especially vulnerable to abuse of states’ surveillance powers. In addition, there are mounting concerns about threats to individual privacy from surveillance and commercially driven data collection by corporations.

45These trends suggest to us that human rights documents need to cite new principles or new elaborations of old principles to balance the inevitable trade-offs that result from state or corporate electronic surveillance.

f. Access to the Internet and electronic communication on a global scale

46A case can be made that access to the Internet and electronic communication is a human right. Some would object that a document like the UDHR aims to state core principles grounded in human dignity, and that the Internet is too recent and contingent a development to be recognized as the proper subject of a human right. Still, the provisions of the Declaration vary in the level of detail that they encompass – see, for example, the thorough language of Article 26, the education provision.

47It is certainly important to understand that the specific rights set out in the Declaration extend to new technologies, including the Internet. This follows from our understanding of the UDHR as a living document. By way of illustration, the abstract language of Article 19 – read in the context of today – implies that the right to freedom of expression encompasses communication via the Internet. That article states that “everyone has the right to […] impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

48Electronic communication, particularly through the Internet, enables the exercise of a range of other human rights. For example, social media provide a platform for people to exercise their Article 20 rights to peaceful assembly and association in circumstances where they otherwise could not do so.

g. Extreme poverty and deep economic inequality

49The UDHR already enumerates a range of social and economic rights. It tends to state them in the affirmative: for example, the right to social security in Article 22 or the right to work in Article 23. Ever since 1948, however, there has been a contention that we should also maintain a focus on the conditions that continue to make social provision necessary. Two such conditions now merit particular attention: extreme poverty and deep economic inequality.

  • 6 Income inequality is on the rise, with the richest 10 percent earning up to 40 percent of total glo (...)
  • 7 According to the most recent estimates, in 2012, 896 million people lived on less than $ 1.90 a day (...)

50Economic inequality is defined by the gap between rich and poor, both nationally (within countries) and globally (between countries). Deep economic inequality refers to disparities that involve poverty on the one hand, and great riches on the other.6 In general terms, poverty can be defined as an individual’s or family’s inability to meet basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, water, sanitation, education, healthcare, nutrition, and access to communication. Extreme poverty refers to earning that lies below the international poverty line of 1.90 USD a day, as set by the World Bank.7 The UDHR is not explicit about extreme poverty, but the recent SDG target to “by 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere” should be read as a continuation of the concerns stated in Article 25, the standard of living provision.

51Extreme poverty clearly has direct implications for people’s enjoyment and exercise of the rights they possess. And while deep inequality is not a violation of human rights per se, it is often associated with such violations, inasmuch as it has an impact upon access to political power and also makes discrimination more difficult to resist. Moreover, it is hard to maintain a sense of global citizenship in circumstances of such deep inequality that rich and poor cannot comprehend each other’s lives, both within states and globally. Without such understanding, it is difficult for the rich to sympathize with the needs and predicaments of the poor, and difficult for them to see human dignity in the lives of the poor.

h. Healthcare

52The UDHR makes a brief but powerful reference to healthcare in Article 25, which states that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care.

53Access to health care, both in the form of public health provision in urban and rural areas, and in terms of disease and epidemic control, along with the availability of personal health care resources – these are all essential to health and life itself and must be recognized explicitly as rights. Article 12(1) of the ICESCR speaks of “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,” and focuses particularly on the health of children. This should be read as an elaboration of the concerns embodied in Article 25.

i. A safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment

54For obvious reasons, the international community is far more acutely aware of environmental threats today than it was in 1948. The international community has not yet recognized a human right to a decent and liveable environment per se. However, we believe that our understanding of human rights should embrace the right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, with a right of access for everyone to such elementary resources as clean air, clean water, and clean, safe, and sustainable energy.

  • 8 A Special Rapporteur is an individual working on behalf of the UN within the scope of the Special P (...)

55We endorse the recent formulation of the Special Rapporteur8 on human rights and the environment that “[a]ll human rights depend on the environment in which we live. A safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is integral to the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and sanitation. Without a healthy environment, we are unable to fulfill our aspirations or even live at a level commensurate with minimum standards of human dignity. At the same time, protecting human rights helps to protect the environment. When people are able to learn about, and participate in, the decisions that affect them, they can help to ensure that those decisions respect their need for a sustainable environment.” The very existence of the Special Rapporteur reflects the ability of the human rights system that has emerged since 1948 to respond to new challenges. Concerns about a decent environment remind us that many rights need to be conceived of inter-generationally, and that our responsibilities must embrace the needs and predicaments of our children and grandchildren.

2.4 An open task

56The UDHR left some vital questions unanswered and we have sought to point out some of the ways in which its lacunae have been or could be filled. But the task of identifying the rights we will need to guarantee in our progressively more interdependent world will remain open. The world is changing and humanity changes with it. As we confront the new realities produced by climate change, we may need to identify new rights necessary to protect fundamental human needs and interests; as new technologies develop in the life and information sciences, we may face challenges posed by the reshaping of our minds and bodies, through artificial intelligence or biotechnology. Perhaps, as science fiction writers and philosophers have suggested, we will one day have to consider the rights of beings we have created ourselves. But we believe that as the human community moves forward together to address such challenges, it will be able to build upon the firm foundations laid out in the UDHR.


1 The use of gender-specific language and assumptions in the UDHR – such as the language of “human brotherhood” in Article 1 and the implication in Article 23(3) that it is men who work and provide subsistence for a family – is a function of the time and should not be read as discriminatory.

2 It is worth noting that Article 1(d) of the UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery states that “any institution or practice whereby a child or young person under the age of 18 years, is delivered by either or both of his natural parents or by his guardian to another person, whether for reward or not, with a view to the exploitation of the child or young person or of his labour” is an institution or practice similar to slavery.

3 Children from countries that have ratified the Third Optional Protocol to the CRC can submit a complaint to the Committee on the Rights of the Child if their rights under the Convention, or its two earlier Optional Protocols, have been violated by the state and when all domestic remedies have been exhausted. To date, however, only 24 states have ratified the Third Optional Protocol, and many of those states have failed to adequately educate the public as to its existence. Further, this form of redress is political, rather than legal, and decisions made by the Committee are non-binding.

4 There are a number of causes of statelessness. Some countries do not recognize people from certain communities as citizens of that country. For instance, there are more than 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar that have been refused nationality under the 1982 citizenship law, and many of the Bedouins of Kuwait are effectively stateless. Statelessness is also caused by the breakup of countries. More than two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, over 600,000 people remain stateless. In addition, there are 27 countries in the world where women do not have the same rights as men to confer nationality on their children. So if you are a single mother of a child whose father is not known, you are unable to pass your nationality to your child. Finally, there are circumstances where bureaucratic difficulties in obtaining documentation such as birth certificates preclude people from accessing rights associated with nationality.


6 Income inequality is on the rise, with the richest 10 percent earning up to 40 percent of total global income, while the poorest 10 percent earn only between 2 and 7 percent of total global income. In developing countries, inequality has increased by 11 percent if we take into account the growth of population. A significant majority of households in developing countries – more than 75 percent of the population – are living today in societies where income is more unequally distributed than it was in the 1990s. Evidence shows that, beyond a certain threshold, inequality harms growth and poverty reduction, the quality of relations in the public and political spheres, and individuals’ sense of fulfillment and self-worth. SDG 10 is to “reduce inequality within and among countries.”

7 According to the most recent estimates, in 2012, 896 million people lived on less than $ 1.90 a day. Just over 77.8 percent of the extremely poor lived in South Asia (309 million) and Sub-Saharan Africa (388.7 million). In addition, 147 million lived in East Asia and Pacific.

8 A Special Rapporteur is an individual working on behalf of the UN within the scope of the Special Procedures mechanisms, who bears a specific country or thematic mandate from the UN Human Rights Council. Special Rapporteurs undertake country visits; act on individual cases and concerns of a broader, structural nature by sending communications to states and others in which they bring alleged violations or abuses to their attention; conduct thematic studies and convene expert consultations; contribute to the development of international human rights standards, engage in advocacy, raise public awareness, and provide advice for technical cooperation.


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