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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 75: Has global human rights protection fared any better?

Ahead of the 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Dr Daniel Ogunniyi, Modern Slavery Lecturer at the University of Hull, reflects on the legacy and future of this seminal document. 

Daniel Ogunniyi
Dr Daniel Ogunniyi of the Faculty of Business, Law & Politics and the Wilberforce Institute

In what would become one of the most important human rights documents since the Magna Carta of 1215, on 10 December 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a framework for protecting human rights globally. Emerging from the ashes of World War II, the UDHR set out specific provisions that recognised the inherent rights of every human being everywhere on earth. Although a legally non-binding instrument, at least from a purely normative standpoint, the contents of the UDHR have influenced the adoption of many legally binding treaties and the codification of rights in many national constitutions worldwide. As the UDHR launched the global era of human rights exactly 75 years ago, it is worth asking whether human rights protection has fared any better ever since.


Since its inception, the UDHR has persisted in infusing societies with notions of equality, justice, and fundamental freedoms. Given its fusion of civil and political rights with economic and sociocultural rights, the UDHR serves as the bedrock for the core global human rights treaties, in particular, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, separately adopted in 1966. Since 1948, global human rights development has gone through several phases, from the articulation of individual, group, and minority rights to the variable/relativist interpretation of rights by authoritarian regimes.

The UDHR expressed in its preamble that ‘disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.’ The holocaust and the mass atrocities of World War II warranted a framework that would prevent the outbreak of armed hostilities between and within nations. Accordingly, the UDHR (and other treaties) affirmed a wide range of rights and freedoms including the right to life, the right to fair hearing, the right to privacy, the right to asylum etc. Article 4 of the UDHR also explicitly states that ‘no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms,’ a particular right the Wilberforce Institute is supporting through innovative research.

A child worker on a building site

When considering the objective of preventing war and analogous conducts that may undermine human rights, one may argue that while significant progress was recorded in the early decades of the UDHR, even though there were sporadic conflicts at different times, the outbreak of wars in different parts of the world in recent years, has eroded some gains recorded in the early years. The proliferation of armed violence and killings around the world today directly challenge the utilitarian values attached to human rights. Human rights are currently under trial in different regions of the world. Although the Russia/Ukraine and Israel/Palestine conflicts have dominated the media space than others, there is evidence of over 100 non-international armed conflicts ongoing in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East today, of which 2022 alone witnessed 237,000 battle-related deaths. With the addition of the Israel/Palestine conflict, the number of casualties will likely be significantly higher for 2023.

Apart from the deprivation of the right to life, displaced populations caught up in armed conflicts often experience the diminishing or total loss of their rights, including the right to food, housing, healthcare, education etc. Also, many of the displaced population become highly vulnerable to trafficking, forced marriage, sexual exploitation, abduction, extortion, and forced labour. The UN Refugee Agency recently noted that some 108 million people were forcibly displaced in 2022. In principle, when these individuals are displaced internally, they should be afforded human rights protection by their governments, and when they cross international borders, they should be granted refugee status and protection in the destination country. However, recent years have witnessed a rise in anti-immigrant/anti-refugee sentiments in countries that supposedly are the bastions of human rights, including the UK and the US. The UK government is, for instance, actively pursuing its Rwanda Policy despite successive setbacks in court.

Beyond the violation of human rights as we know it today, it is highly likely that future threats would emerge from additional actors. The climate crisis and the rapid development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) might pose even greater risks to human rights. Climate variation is projected to induce greater human movement that might result in around 1 billion climate displacements by 2050, many of whom will experience varied forms of human rights abuses. As one of the main ecological crises in the world today, climate change is already revealing its devastating potential. Poorer individuals in developing countries, despite their marginal contributions to the climate crisis, are paying the greatest price for it with the destruction of their farmlands, loss of livelihoods, and enslavements linked to droughts, flooding etc. Evidence suggests that the top 10 most at-risk countries only emit 0.5% of global emissions, while the greater emissions are from more developed countries.


The use of AI in combat operations might also increase human suffering, civilian deaths, and broader human rights violations. As one of the core principles of International Humanitarian Law, military commanders must always distinguish between military targets and the civilian population when attacking. It is unclear whether machines can effectively make such distinctions. Also, when machines are programmed to make autonomous combat decisions, what extent could they go? What restraints could they exercise? With the lack of clear governance on AI use in combat operations at present, human right is likely to face an uncertain future. As such, the time to adopt a global AI treaty appears to be now, and such a treaty must be underpinned by human rights principles. Also, the challenge of climate change requires international action given its transnational dimensions. The Paris Agreement already offers a useful framework for embedding human rights into climate action. Global events, such as COP28 must identify strong mitigation and adaptation strategies and must transition from policy deliberations to action.

Undoubtedly, the UDHR has come a long way in its 75-year history. The document has contributed significantly to the articulation of human rights as a universal principle, even though its relativity is still sometimes argued. While the UDHR has paved the way for the progressive and normative development of human rights, more needs to be done to practically implement its contents globally. Human rights should not be sacrificed when global power dynamics are strained as commonly witnessed today.

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