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The 75th anniversary of the UDHR and the ongoing significance of Evatt’s legacy

10 December 2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (‘the UDHR’). This seminal document which forms the heart of modern international human rights law, was brought to life in 1948 in the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War. The world was awash with a sense of our human fragility, a reckoning with our common humanity, and the important role of the international community and nation states in recognising and protecting that universal sense of, and experience of universal humanity and dignity.

The UDHR, whilst not a binding legal instrument, became the foundational document on which all subsequent international human rights instruments, Declarations, Guiding Principles and Statements developed by international human rights experts and endorsed by nation states have been built. Together with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966, the three instruments form what is known as the ‘International Bill of Rights’. It is this steadfast framework through which new areas of human endeavour have been viewed, assessed and interpreted. It has served as the basis for the evolution and development of more focussed and detailed international conventions which have focussed on the rights of particularly vulnerable groups. These include the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

H.V. Evatt, or ‘Doc’ Evatt’ as he was known, played a pivotal role in drafting the UN Charter, the instrument that established and set out the basic architecture for the UN. He was then elected the third President of the UN General Assembly; and he was in the chair in December 1948 when the General Assembly voted to adopt the UDHR in its entirety. Australians must not forget the role Evatt played  and  hence Australia’s historic contribution to the development of international human rights law and its universal application.

The year after the UDHR was adopted saw the enactment of four additional Geneva Conventions, which deal with Humanitarian Law.  These are seminal international instruments that collectively established the rules of warfare to ensure a fair playing field in the arena of war, enshrining key principles about proportionality and legitimate military targets, the treatment of prisoners of war, the protection of civilians, humanitarian personnel and objects, journalists, cultural objects and heritage, and other matters. It is important to note that international human rights law continues to operate even in times of war, except where it has been suspended explicitly and in very limited circumstances.

So, as we approach the quarter-century mark in the 21st century, what is the ongoing significance of that watershed moment of 1948 in human history? How can the UDHR continue to be relevant in our times? What further work do we need to do - as civil society actors, nation states and the international community as a whole - to give full voice to the continuing promise of the UDHR, adapting it in ways that respond to the human rights challenges of our times?

 Ours is a time of immense and rapid change, with the digital and technological age evolving into an age of artificial intelligence, and with commercial travel in space seemingly in the offing. Yet creating a peaceful world seems to be continuously unattainable goal. Right now, we have wars raging between Russia and Ukraine, following the invasion of the latter country in contravention of the UN Charter, and the ongoing conflict in Gaza between the state of Israel and Hamas, a non-state actor,  with the as yet unresolved question of nationhood for the Palestinian people. Globally, we are all facing an existential crisis of previously unseen proportions, with the ongoing climate catastrophe and the prospect of a future beset by climate driven disasters, food and water shortages and climate-change driven pandemics. Because these environmental crises threaten the very existence of human life, and certainly the quality of it, our human rights are challenged in a very fundamental sense. Moreover, because they threaten all other life on this planet, we now need to examine the connection between human rights and our sense of justice and peace and the wellbeing of the planet and the beings with whom we share it.

These significant challenges make necessary a renewed commitment to the protection of human rights. We need to educate the next generations about the importance and universality of human rights and to hold our leaders to account for the duty they bear as representatives of nation states to uphold human rights, even as they must be understood in the new and evolving contexts of our rapidly changing world.

What does this mean for the work of the Evatt Foundation?

The Evatt Foundation must continue to promote the Evatt legacy, that is, the highest ideals of the labour movement; social justice, equality, democracy and human rights. We must also be alive to what these ideals mean in their contemporary context, to bring the universal values and commitments enshrined in the UDHR to life in local, national and international contexts and to help carry these values forward for subsequent generations. This is a bedrock commitment, just as relevant today, if not even more so, than when the Evatt Foundation was established half a century ago.

What does it mean for the role of the Australian government?

Representing a nation that is a global middle power with a proud history of supporting international human rights at the UN, the Australian government must continue to be a vocal and active supporter of international human rights principles, in its actions at home, its dealings abroad, and in its advocacy at the UN in its various constituent bodies. The Evatt Foundation can, and will, continue to play an important role in this regard, contributing to informed national policy debates and advocating for positions that support equality, human rights, social justice and democracy.

For many years now, the Evatt Foundation has been calling for the introduction of a federal Human Rights Act or Charter in Australia, to give full voice in our legal system to the promise of the UDHR. In recent years, we have joined the Charter of Human Rights campaign, alongside many other civil society organisations. We note that an Inquiry into Australia’s Human Rights Framework is presently underway by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, to which we contributed. Simultaneously, the Australian Human Rights Commission has also released a discussion paper concerning the human rights architecture needed to properly protect human rights in Australia and is calling for the introduction of a Human Rights Act. The report from the Parliamentary Inquiry is expected early next year and we will continue to follow these developments closely.



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