10 December 2020

Seventy-five years ago, the United Nations was created to advance global peace and security, improve access to development and further respect for human rights.

As people emerged from two world wars, as the full horrors of the Holocaust were exposed, as the shadow of the cold war began to descend and as those living under the yoke of colonialism—nearly one third of the world’s population then—fought to be free, respect for human rights was a global rallying cry. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on 10 December 1948, inspired peoples across the world and laid the foundation for governance and institutional reforms, for progressive, people centred legislation and education that reverberates from generation to generation.

But for several years now, in some parts of the world, respect for human rights has declined. The United Nations Secretary-General and High Commissioner for Human Rights have warned of a backlash—both at the country level and in discussions at the United Nations, notably in the fight against terrorism, with regard to women’s rights, and in the space for civil society participation and activism.

United Nations independent rights experts have raised the alarm over the steep increase in attacks, including murder, on human rights defenders, from protectors of the environment to journalists. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare deepened poverty, rising inequalities, structural and entrenched discrimination, and other widening gaps in the protection of social and economic rights. 

Has the popularity of human rights faded?

In 2020, to mark its seventy-fifth anniversary, the United Nations set out to listen to the people it serves. It launched a global consultation to understand peoples’ hopes and fears for the future, and to seek to better understand expectations of international cooperation and of the United Nations in particular.

About 1.5 million people participated in our consultations directly, through surveys and dialogues in all United Nations Member and observer States. Many more did so through our partners on the ground, from large youth movements to businesspeople and indigenous groups.

We also asked Edelman Intelligence and the Pew Research Center to carry out independent, representative polling of 50,000 people in 50 countries to serve as a reality check and ensure that we were not just hearing from those sympathetic to us.

In the midst of a pandemic, with poverty on the rise, conflicts unresolved and climate change unchecked, we were uncertain as to whether furthering respect for human rights would feature at all, let alone as a priority for the global public.

But it did. Of the issues cited as priorities for recovering from the pandemic, all have human rights at their core, from securing better access to basic services to improving how we address inequalities. Meanwhile, the most common proposals for solutions centred on increasing people’s participation in decisions that affect their lives, and on increasing the inclusion of vulnerable and marginalized groups. In the longer term, next to combating climate change and environmental destruction, the respondents’ main priorities all reflect an aspiration for more universal respect for human rights. 

The call for universal respect for human rights and human dignity unified humanity after the Second World War. And it does so again today. At a time of great distress and unprecedented global challenges, people look to human rights as a driver for hope and just measure for decisive action to realize the future we want. We need to heed the call.

The UN Chronicle  is not an official record. It is privileged to host senior United Nations officials as well as distinguished contributors from outside the United Nations system whose views are not necessarily those of the United Nations. Similarly, the boundaries and names shown, and the designations used, in maps or articles do not necessarily imply endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations.