Work remains to honour the world's bill of rights

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 December, 2008, 12:00am

Sixty years ago today, the United Nations made history when its then 58 member states adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It came about as the world recoiled in horror from the carnage and destruction of the second world war. Through the years, the declaration has been a beacon of hope for people everywhere struggling for dignity, justice and freedom. It has become a universal benchmark against which nations must measure themselves. Sadly, six decades on, many still fall short.

Today, the declaration's great ideals are under assault everywhere. Some advanced nations have undermined fundamental rights in their prosecutions in the so-called war on terror; developing countries routinely trample on the rights of individuals in the name of nation-building; and religious fundamentalists of different creeds are resorting to violence and terrorism to undermine the freedoms of speech and belief. Therefore, on this day of the declaration's 60th anniversary, it is not a time for celebration, but reflection.

Without doubt, humankind has made significant progress under the guidance of this unique and powerful document. The declaration has become the Magna Carta of our time, the world's bill of rights. Though non-binding, it has led to the formation of a significant body of international law, such as the covenants against racism, genocide, the rights of the child and discrimination against women. Together with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, they represent an impressive system of international law. Indeed, many jurisdictions have written them into their own laws. Article 39 of the Basic Law brings the two key conventions into play in Hong Kong. Other provisions in our mini-constitution reflect principles found in the declaration. And our Bill of Rights is based on the ICCPR.

Unfortunately, around the world, we see violations of almost every one of the 30 articles in the declaration. Slavery, long outlawed universally, has been revived as human-trafficking on a transnational scale. Violence against women and discrimination against minorities remain a daily reality. Millions of children die each year from malnutrition and preventable diseases. More than half a century after the Holocaust, genocide and ethnic-cleansing remain very real threats in some countries. But in a world of plenty, the greatest shame of all is that one in five people live in poverty and are denied access to adequate food and clean water. Much, therefore, remains to be done. The world's peoples and governments must renew their commitment to the declaration if we are to hope this century will be more peaceful and humane than the last one.