Change is possible: A tribute to the 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by Tony Lloyd MP

On Saturday 10th December, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Genocide Convention, two defining pillars.

In Parliament, we celebrated this occasion with a Westminster Hall debate highlighting the vital need to uphold the Declaration’s value. Such a declaration was completely unprecedented in history but it came at a time where the world had witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War and the nations of the world came together to say, “Never again”.

The rights set out in the Declaration ensure that we should never be subjected to different treatment or ill-treatment based on gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexuality, disability, and all the important characteristics that make us who we are as individuals in the human family. The aspirations of the Declaration are extraordinary, covering freedom of religion, freedom of expression and assembly, right to education and work, and prohibition of slavery and torture. The Declaration had the power to create a turning point in our collective history, inspiring decolonisation movements and civil rights movements to work for radical changes in law and societal attitudes.

Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, we witnessed the flurry of change as new nations emerged, with Declaration compliant constitutions and ambitions. We witnessed change in our own country, with the struggle for gender equality including equal pay, racial equality and the beginning of recognition of rights for the LGBT community. I pay tribute to all who fought for the change we needed and made it happen sometimes at personal cost. This is still a journey in progress. In the 70s, Europe’s fascist regimes gave way and in the 80s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, the European Convention on Human Rights, a child of the Universal Declaration and by joining the Council of Europe, saw all those countries adopting Declaration compliant standards. How odd that there are voices today who would abrogate that Convention and the Court that upholds its values.

There are often times when the world forgets about individual members of the human family and their rights as we are swamped by ongoing conflicts. We find those who ask, ‘Has the Declaration been a success or a failure?’, dismayed that so many nations are in gross breach of their commitments to the protection of human rights.

In Israel and Gaza, the kidnappings of Israeli men, women and children was brutal. The denial of water, food, medicine and humanitarian aid is equally brutal as the death count mounts. Iran saw the death of Mahsa Amini for the crime of “improper hijab clothing”. In Syria, currently 2.4 million children do not have access to education and 55% of the population are food insecure. In the Congo, child labour and illegal practices in Congolese mines have scarred generations and the violence shows no sign of ending. In Europe, we bore witness to the Russian massacre in Bucha and the 16,000 children kidnapped. And so many other crises.

But the fight for human rights brings forward new champions in each generation and these are some of the bravest people I have met. Fighting to protect human rights carries real risk in many parts of the world, where human rights and environmental defenders face prosecution, arbitrary detention, statelessness, torture and even death. Human rights organisations and their activities are completely banned in Saudi Arabia while in Russia, the global LGBT movement was recently designated as an ‘extremist organisation’ and activists face lengthy sentences. We should be in awe of those defenders fighting for the Declaration rights of indigenous people and their land in Brazil, Colombia or Peru, while under constant personal threat.

Despite the many breaches of the spirits of the Declaration, we are all better protected when we respect those Declaration rights and establish them as the basis for attitude and importantly, international law. The Declaration is testament to the fact that in the aftermath of a divided war- torn world of the 1940s, a generation of thinkers and leaders generated the political will that made change possible. As we celebrate the 75th Anniversary, we must ensure that we uphold the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ensure we have the political will to follow the example of those who 75 years ago, fought for the change they wanted to take place the change we inherit.

Tony Lloyd MP

Tony Lloyd is the Labour MP for Rochdale, and was elected in June 2017.