United Nations

70 years of human rights policy

2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This central human rights document was drafted and adopted in reaction to the Nazis’ total negation of human dignity.
picture alliance /Winter/Timeline Images The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a turning point. picture alliance /Winter/Timeline Images

The declaration contains a global consensus on what human dignity consists of. It encompasses civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights. It emphasises that, in order to guarantee the dignity of every human being, all of these rights must be respected, protected and guaranteed.   

The nascent Cold War quickly led to an instrumentalisation of human rights, however. The west concentrated on civil and political human rights, criticising their corresponding abuses in the east, whereas the east called attention to the west’s failure to fully implement economic, social and cultural human rights.

The conflict prevented the development of a single human rights agreement. Instead, human rights were codified into binding international law in two separate two agreements: a treaty on economic, social and cultural human rights and a treaty on civil and political rights. Both were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 and have been in force since 1976. Due to the Cold War, the impact was small however.

Things changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The competition between the USA and the Soviet Union had ended and the UN became a forum in which international consensus on various topics was formulated. All dimensions of human rights gained in importance.enerally speaking, all constitutions that have been adopted since the end of the Cold War contain a comprehensive catalogue of basic rights. One example is the South African constitution from 1994, which includes economic, social and cultural human rights in its list of basic rights. Moreover, the two central human rights agreements are on track to achieve nearly universal ratification. For example, 110 countries now have a national institute for human rights that cooperates within the Global Alliance for National Human Rights Institutions. The institutes provide monitoring for their own countries, as well as observe international trends. That is what the 1993 Vienna Conference on Human Rights called for. Of course, the national institutes cooperate with human rights defenders in civil society. The advantages of this dense network include the generation of more reliable data and faster exchange of information. 

In addition, there have been significant socio-political changes in many countries towards a broader acceptance of human rights in civil society. This trend can be seen, for instance, in the fact that discrimination and violence against women are being increasingly criticised worldwide. Furthermore, there are now greater protections for children and minorities and more recognition of the importance of human rights defenders. Each of these expansions is of course always also the result of social conflicts and processes of change. 

However, it is also clear that the pendulum is now swinging the other way. The international citizens’ rights organisation CIVICUS (2017) reports that in over 70 countries in recent years, new laws have been passed to restrict the opportunities and scope of political action of civil society organisations. CIVICUS is a particularly reliable observer of abidance by democratic rights.

The Bertelsmann Transformation Index has identified the same trend. The index appears every two years. The edition of 2016 bemoaned the dwindling scope of action for civil society actors. The  edition of 2018 observes that, in order to shore up their power, governments of democracies that were deficient to begin with are now increasingly curtailing or even suppressing the rule of law.  

Michael Windfuhr is the deputy director of the German Institute for Human Rights.


Bertelsmann Stiftung, ed.: Transformation Index BTI 2018: Governance in international comparison, Gütersloh, 2018

CIVICUS, ed., 2017: People power under attack: findings from the CIVICUS monitor, Johannesburg

Deutsches Institut für Menschenrechte

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