Human rights: the last 75 years and the next

Human rights: the last 75 years and the next

December 10th marks International Human Rights Day, the date on which the Universal Declaration was adopted by the United Nations. This year’s Human Rights Day is especially momentous, as it marks the 75th anniversary of the Declaration. From the wreckage of the Second World War, the international community committed to prevent further war and the untold damage it causes.

"I work as a museum consultant, encouraging museums to play a bigger part in sustainable development challenges and agendas, which are ultimately about promoting human rights for everyone, and protecting and restoring nature."

As we look back on the last 75 years, we see progress in some areas, but great challenges in others. The Declaration is not perfect, as it was developed when many millions of people were still under colonial rule. The environment was not well featured in the Declaration, as the damage that people were doing to nature was not yet severe enough to be as obvious as it is today, and some of the big problems, notably pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change, have increased exponentially.

Nevertheless, the shortcomings of the Declaration have been corrected in many international agreements, both as legally binding Conventions and voluntary Declarations. These include the Convention to End Racial Discrimination, from the 1960s in the Civil Rights Era, the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity (both of which are now over 30 years old).

The pace of change has not been fast enough, and many sectors have not known, understood or acted on the challenges they could usefully support. I work as a museum consultant, encouraging museums to play a bigger part in sustainable development challenges and agendas, which are ultimately about promoting human rights for everyone, and protecting and restoring nature.

In 2020, UN Secretary General António Guterres set out ‘Our Highest Aspiration: a call to action for human rights’, which included seven Calls to Action[1]. Museums can heed this call in many ways, such as:

1) Rights at the core of sustainable development: Sustainability is much more than just using natural resources efficiently. Sustainable development means that we respect people’s rights, and we provide them with opportunities to understand, act on, and enjoy the benefits of their human rights.

(2) Rights in times of crisis: In a world with many challenges, recognising that all people, everywhere, are entitled to a life of dignity is a fundamental aspect of sustainable development. We can all seek to understand, and do what we can to remove, the barriers that prevent people from leading such a life.

(3) Gender equality and equal rights for women: Human rights belong to women and girls, and gender-diverse people, as they belong to all people, equally. We should ensure that those rights are respected, protected and fulfilled everywhere.

(4) Public participation and civic space: The UN notes ‘Society is stronger and more resilient when everyone can play a meaningful role in political, economic and social life, including by accessing information, engaging in dialogue and expressing dissent.’ This is particularly relevant to the work of schools, museums and libraries, where we can encourage freedom of thought.

(5) Rights of future generations, especially climate justice: Our challenge is surely to make sure we leave the world in a better state than we found it in. Climate change is a huge challenge in this regard, as is loss of biodiversity, as we risk leaving people worse of, for a world that is less secure, and with diminished resources.

(6) Rights at the heart of collective action: People have rights to take part in public affairs and in society, and we all have responsibilities to one another. Human rights promote our ‘active, free and meaningful’ participation in current affairs, and our various institutions (educational, cultural, political) can provide us with the opportunities for such participation to take place.

(7) New frontiers of human rights: The next 75 years will present new challenges, and climate change and environmental damage also mean that existing challenges will become more harder to deal with. Technological advances, such as Artificial Intelligence, present new challenges. The rights of artists and other creators, and the rights of people more generally in an increasingly digitalised world, will be an area requiring attention, including museums. We may also expect to see a greater recognition of the rights of nature, which are already being legally acknowledged in relation to some specific places.

These seven Calls to Action can be our ‘to-do list’ for the years to come, to collaborate with one another to secure peace, dignity and equality on a healthy planet.

Henry's Fellowship report is available here and for more information contact Henry at Curating Tomorrow


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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