Celebrating Human Rights Day — Accenting Non-Discrimination

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights website celebrates today, Human Rights Day, with this statement on some sixty years of efforts to end many kinds of UN Reflection
Creative Commons License photo credit: FantasticBabblings
discrimination across the globe.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. These first few famous words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established 60 years ago the basic premise of international human rights law. Yet today, the fight against discrimination remains a daily struggle for millions around the globe.

“Our main objective is to help promote discrimination-free societies and a world of equal treatment for all,” says the High Commissioner [Navi Pillay] who this year will mark Human Rights Day in South Africa. She encourages people everywhere – including the UN family, governments, civil society, national human rights institutions, the media, educators, and individuals – to seize the opportunity of Human Rights Day 2009 to join hands to embrace diversity and end discrimination.

The realisation of all human rights – social, economic and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights – is hampered by discrimination. All too often, when faced with prejudice and discrimination, political leaders, governments and ordinary citizens are silent or complacent. Yet everyone of us can make a difference. You are encouraged to celebrate Human Rights Day by advocating non-discrimination, organizing activities, raising awareness and reaching out to your local communities on 10 December and throughout 2010.

Human Rights Day [examples]:
South Africa: * Students from around the world will take part in the first World Human Rights Moot Competition organized by the University of Pretoria with the support of the OHCHR. They will argue a fictional human rights case on the principle of non-discrimination before the High Commissioner presiding over a panel of high level judges. New York: * UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will open, “Race, Poverty and Power: A Panel Discussion on Discrimination in Development” (PDF). This event will provide a forum for a critical examination of the relationship between ‘race’ and development.

… All human rights work can be viewed through the non-discrimination lens. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, colour, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, disability, property, birth or other status.

I have recently summarized some relevant history here:

The struggle to deal with the Nazi Holocaust, together with ongoing struggles for human rights by people in many countries led to the pathbreaking Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in late 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly with no negative votes and eight abstentions. This important international agreement stipulates in Article 1 that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” and in Article 7 that “all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.” Article 8 further asserts, “Everyone has the right to an effective remedy…for acts violating the fundamental rights,” and Article 25 states that these rights extend to everyday life: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing.” Since 1948 numerous international covenants on economic, social, and political rights have been signed by most United Nations members, and agencies like the UN Commission on Human Rights have been established to monitor human rights globally. The UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), put in force in 1969, specifically requires governments to make illegal the dissemination of ideas of racial superiority and the operation of organizations set up to promote discrimination. This convention, first ratified by some nations in the 1960s, was ratified by the United States only in 1994. Today CERD commits the U.S. and other governments to “adopt all necessary measures for speedily eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms and manifestations.”

In the mid-1970s two additional agreements–the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)—were approved by many countries and added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to create an what is often termed an International Bill of Human Rights. However, while the ICESCR was signed by the U.S. government in 1979, it has not yet been ratified by the U.S. Senate. The U.S. Senate did ratify the ICCPR in 1992, but with fourteen reservations, declarations, and understandings, so many that much of that Covenant was thereby invalidated for the United States. Nonetheless, these United Nations covenants represent major international responses to, as Judith Blau and Alberto Moncada suggest, “genocide, oppressive labor practices, the antiapartheid movement, national independence movements, liberation movements of colonized people, and atrocities committed against civilians” and to the “civil rights movement in America, the feminist movement, and the newly empowered voices of indigenous groups and landless peasants.”