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Toward UDHR 100: How Do We Reduce Global Displacement and Uphold Human Rights?

By Simon Adams, President & CEO
Published December 11, 2023

It is impossible to grasp the full significance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) without considering the dark history that shaped it. The UDHR was adopted at Palais de Chaillot in Paris on 10 December 1948. Less than a decade earlier Adolf Hitler had posed for a conqueror’s photograph outside the same building, with the Eiffel Tower in the background, as his tanks rolled across Europe. By the time international diplomats met at the Palais in 1948 the full extent of the misery inflicted by Nazism and the Second World War was painfully evident. At least 70 million people were dead. The gas chambers of Auschwitz and the horrors of the Holocaust had been exposed. Saturation bombing and atomic warfare had obliterated entire cities. Europe was in ruins and millions of people had become refugees or were living in displacement camps.

The UDHR emerged from this grim reality, but was intended to signal that a new era of multilateralism and international law was emerging. With its 30 succinct articles, the UDHR established the principle that human rights were inherent and inalienable for every person on our planet. These include the right to a nationality; to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; to peaceful assembly, and so on. The UDHR is not a legal treaty, but it has shaped all subsequent human rights conventions, instruments and institutions. It is also the most translated document in history – with more than 500 versions of its text available.

With its 30 succinct articles, the UDHR established the principle that human rights were inherent and inalienable for every person on our planet.”

Central to the UDHR was Article 14 which states that everyone “has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Article 14 directly influenced the adoption of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees (and its 1967 protocol), a key pillar of international law. The types of violations and abuses that might force a person to flee are also explicitly addressed in the UDHR, not least of all in its prohibition of slavery (Article 4), arbitrary arrest or detention (Article 9), and its attestation that no one “shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 5).

It is sobering, therefore, to consider that 75 years since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the UDHR, we are in the midst of the greatest refugee and asylum crisis since the Second World War. According to the UN, at the end of 2022 there were more than 108 million people around the world displaced by persecution, conflict and atrocities. This included 62.5 million internally displaced, 5.4 million asylum seekers and 35.3 million refugees. When the UN publishes its 2023 figures, these numbers will be even higher, including 4 million people newly displaced in Sudan since civil war erupted last April.

According to the annual Freedom in the World report, whose methodology is largely derived from the UDHR, “global freedom declined for a 17th consecutive year in 2022.” Besides those fleeing armed conflict, this erosion of human rights and civil liberties is the other major reason why one in six people on our planet is now displaced.

It doesn’t need to be this way. In the 1990s, following the end of the Cold War, many abusive dictatorships crumbled and a new political climate facilitated the resolution of armed conflicts in Cambodia, Mozambique, Angola and elsewhere. It seemed like massive refugee camps might be a thing of the past. With some notable exceptions, the number of people requiring protection from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees kept falling. By 1998 the number was under 19 million, only 17% of today’s figure.

What this points to is that today’s global displacement crisis is not unsolvable, especially when one considers that three-quarters (76%) of refugees come from just six countries – Syria (6.5 million), Ukraine (5.7 million), Afghanistan (5.7 million), Venezuela (5.4 million), South Sudan (2.3 million), and Myanmar (1.2 million). What these countries have in common is that they are all experiencing armed conflict and/or are ruled by authoritarian governments unwilling or unable to uphold the human rights of all their people.

The UDHR was drafted by pen and adopted before laptops or the internet existed. But the UDHR’s contents remain indelible.”

Reversing these trends and halving the global displacement number in time for the UDHR’s centenary in 2048 is possible, but will require fresh approaches to multilateralism. Just like those delegates at the Palais de Chaillot 75 years ago, we need to re-center human rights and humanitarianism at the core of global diplomacy. But all countries could meaningfully advance human rights by:

  • Incorporating the UDHR into domestic law and ratifying all core international human rights instruments, including the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
  • Consistently opposing human rights violations and abuses at home and abroad, not just when it is politically convenient. Help protect civil society and provide meaningful support to human rights defenders.
  • Establishing safer transit routes for those fleeing persecution and conflict. The journey to a refugee camp or asylum should not be rendered more deadly or difficult than necessary.
  • Ensuring that states increase their share of the refugee resettlement burden and strictly uphold the legal principle of non-refoulement.
  • Increasing accountability. Utilizing the U.S.’ Global Magnitsky Act as a template, tighten domestic laws in order to freeze or seize the assets of serial human rights abusers.

The UDHR was drafted by pen and adopted before laptops or the internet existed. But the UDHR’s contents remain indelible. Over the next 25 years we need the 193 states who constitute the modern United Nations to uphold those rights with consistency and courage. Climate change might be the biggest existential threat facing our planet, but human rights and global displacement remain the great moral challenges of our time.

This essay originally appeared in The Next 25: A Collection of Essays on the Future of Human Rights

About The Author
Dr. Simon Adams is President & CEO at CVT
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