Speech delivered at the 75th anniversary of the UDHR, Dr Solomon Ayele Dersso, Commissioner African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, 11 December 2023, at the United Nations Regional Office in Nairobi, Kenya


Excellencies, colleagues, dear friends

Happy 75th anniversary to us all on this auspicious occasion marking the 75th birthday of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

The world has come a long way since 1948. Unlike the early years following the adoption of the UDHR, today substantial, if not all, parts of the UDHR are not just declaratory and non-binding enunciation of rights. Today, they constitute part of customary international law and are binding on all states. They have also been transformed into binding components of binding human rights treaties. 

In 1948, Africa, like much of the developing world, was under the grip of colonial rule. At the time of the UDHR’s adoption, these were parts of the world that did not form part of the humanity that the UDHR was imagined to apply. 

Yet & despite the lack of specific reference to freedom from colonial and foreign domination and rule, the UDHR availed a much needed politico-legal language for appropriation by people under colonial rule to discredit & delegitimize colonial rule as negation of the values that the UDHR espouses and advances. 

The UDHR and its language became instruments for articulating, defending and campaigning for freedom from colonial rule - the right to self-determination, the equality and equal rights of all peoples. In other words, the UDHR created a normative environment that increasingly made the continuation of colonial rule & apartheid untenable. 

This is the background why the UDHR is referenced on par with the UN Charter in the Charter of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) that established African Union’s predecessor, the OAU. Similarly, it is for these reasons that the UDHR is cited in the founding African human rights instrument, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the Constitutive Act establishing the AU. 

75 years since the UDHR, the world and Africa have also made remarkable strides in the realm of normative expansion and consolidation of human rights. 

Similarly, the world and Africa have registered impressive progress in developing institutions, mechanisms and jurisprudence that incrementally, albeit unevenly, sought to expand the application of human rights to sectors of society beyond the mainstream. 

75 years since the adoption of the UDHR, despite debates about effective, inclusive & evenhanded application and about emphasis and interpretation of human rights, the universal normative legitimacy of human rights is no longer a matter that is contested in many parts of the world. Countries and peoples from various parts of the world and with diverse cultural backgrounds, profess commitment to human rights, albeit with uneven application and emphasis. 

In many parts of the world including peoples in former colonial rules and advanced countries like the US, the values underpinning UDHR and the rights enunciated under the UDHR are invoked to fights against authoritarian rule and discrimination.  

Apart from regional human rights system in Africa, Americas, Asia and Europe and the entrenchment of bill of rights in national constitutions, the world also adopted the responsibility to protect and established the International Criminal court. Similarly, Africa also instituted the principle of non-indifference with a commitment to intervene against genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

Public consciousness about and demand for national and international action for more equality, justice, accountability, freedom and dignity has been on the rise, despite the re-emergence of populist bigotry in recent years. This is true for the whole world as a recent survey commissioned by open society foundation established and for Africa as documented in afrobarometer perception surveys. 

Clearly, the world has come a long way since the adoption of the UDHR. 

Yet and paradoxically today, the world is also increasingly drifting away from the UDHR and its promise. 

Not withstanding the progress registered owing to and since the adoption of the UDHR and the Genocide Convention, in many parts of the world human rights are increasingly observed by breach than by respect. The gulf between the promise of the UDHR and its successor human rights norms and the lived realities of many parts of the world continues to expand. 

75 years after the adoption of the UDHR, many parts of the world witness heinous acts of violations and mass atrocities at a scale never seen since wwii. In Africa, the war in Sudan has turned the country into the world’s fastest growing humanitarian crisis. It has become world’s largest child displacement crisis. One of the world’s theatre of armed conflicts where indiscriminate attacks are routine and there is complete disregard for IHL. As the RSF unleashes mass atrocities in Darfur that echo the genocidal violence the region experienced two decades ago, it has become apparent that the warring parties conduct themselves with impunity. Sudan is not the only one. Even more outrageous horrors have taken place in its neighbor Ethiopia, during the war in Tigray & bordering regions, with the war reportedly claiming the lives of over 600 thousand lives, making it the deadliest war in recent decades. 

What is shocking is not simply that such outrageous levels of human rights violations and breaches of IHL take place 75 years after UDHR. What is not any less outrageous is the fact that these unconscionable acts of violations happen in full view of the world. What is shocking is the world does little about these atrocities. 

We therefore live in an era of impunity. 

75 years after UDHR, human rights are widely recognized. Human rights have been legalized and institutionalized. 

Yet, the level of recognition, legalization and institutionalization is not accompanied by the level of political commitment, mobilization and action necessary to give effect to human rights. 

75 years after the UDHR, the system has run into one of its most serious legitimacy crisis. We have all the legal & institutional instruments yet we lack the will to act on and use them. We know the nature and scale of violations happening any where, yet we stopped being outraged by them. Even expressions of outrage no longer serve as the precursor for effective political commitment and action. They have become performative. 

The vast majority of people on the continent lead an existence stripped of the essential conditions for a dignified life. In 2020, the number living in extreme poverty (which according to the World Bank is less than $1.90 per day) jumped to over half a billion. What this means is that some 520 million people lack the income and other resources necessary to meet basic needs.

The pervasiveness of such conditions of poverty and socioeconomic deprivation makes the normative and institutional progress of human rights in Africa hollow for a large percentage of the population. This crisis of legitimacy of the human rights system is not merely a result of the gulf between the promise of the human rights agenda and the lived experiences of the peoples of the continent, but also stems from the failure to make these structural conditions of deprivation priority areas of concern by human rights actors. 

This is not unique to Africa. As I pointed out in my works in relation to the pandemic, COVID-19 has exposed the continuing marginalisation and neglect of socio-economic rights.

Then you have the instrumentalization of human rights for political and geo-strategic ends and the pervasiveness of the selective application of human rights. Here, the critical question of legitimacy is whether the human rights system that arose from UDHR views the life of all human beings as being equally worthy and deserving of equal protection. Does the system mobilize with equal force to protect the lives of Sudanese, Ethiopians, Ukrainians, Israelis and Palestinians? 

How can we for example explain the level of mobilization that the world displayed against violations in Ukraine where outrageous levels of violence is being unleashed and yet is unable to give even a tiny fraction of such attention to Tigray, where more people are killed, massacred and starved to death than in Ukraine? 

Hate-mongering against immigrants, minorities and various designated 'others' has gone mainstream even in parts of the world purported to be the bastion and champion of human rights.

Such dehumanizing rhetoric and policies toward migrants in the western world, have eroded faith in human rights and human dignity and the importance of laws and policies to protect them, nationally and internationally.

The rise of cultural and religious conservatism and the attendant efforts at reversing significant gains in expanding the freedom of minority and marginalized groups are threatening the freedom and equality of women, including their sexual and reproductive health rights. 

Today, there are also emerging forces and developments that are challenging not just respect for human rights but also the very foundation of human rights. 

One such development is the shift in the nature of state power. While 75 years ago the state was the most powerful entity and hence the principal site for shouldering the obligations arising from the rights in the UDHR, today entities that are economically and socially more powerful than the state have emerged. This is not without consequences on the assumption that underpin the foundation of the UDHR. Explaining the significance of this Mark Mallock-Brown observed that ‘[i]nequalities, exacerbated by unregulated transnational financial and corporate power, together with dramatic shifts in individual states’ fortunes, are creating an ever more challenging landscape. The world is becoming more unequal – and angrier.’

Similarly, as opposed to the time when the UDHR was adopted, today humanity in general and the most vulnerable among the human family and the community of nations face existential threat from the climate emergency. 

One should add to the foregoing the challenge that new technology poses for the enjoyment of human rights. 

All of the foregoing thus make it clear that this is an era more than any other since the adoption of the UDHR which urgently needs to find ways of anchoring how the world works on the UDHR’s recognition that ‘the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. 

This can be realized and the drifting of today’s context away from UDHR can be arrested through the following actions 

First, ensure that the human rights system operates in a way that shows that the life of people in all parts of the world is worthy of equal attention and mobilization for protection. 

Second, the human rights system should bridge the gap between promise of human rights and the reality of the lived experiences of many people in the world including the majority socio-economically deprived, socially and culturally marginalized and physically uprooted from their places of origin and forced into asylum and migration. 

The lesson from the COVID19 pandemic is that water, sanitation, health care, housing and education are fundamental rights to which everyone should have access not only because these rights are a prerequisite to live a life of dignity as human beings, but also because access to these rights by all is a condition for the safety and health of all. This entails course correction regarding the neglect by the social and economic policies of our societies as well as by the human rights system of the centrality of socio-economic rights, whose significance has been made evident in the context of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and its continuing reverberations particularly in economically weak parts of the world. 

Third, it is imperative that human rights actors, media, social movements, opinion leaders as well as philanthropy form an alliance and work together for equal coverage and exposure of atrocities and violence committed in all parts of the world as critical means for mobilizing global public opinion and sustained engagement and action by relevant multilateral institutions. The defense of human rights should not be left to only human rights actors. It should be everyone’s business and a collective responsibility. 

Fourth, the climate emergency is one of the most pressing human rights issue of our era. Human rights should give and can find relevance to the threats that climate change poses to life, safety, health and livelihoods. It is on this account that the African Commission adopted a resolution mandating a study and is undertaking a study on climate change and human and peoples’ rights in Africa. 

Fifth, the human rights system and international law in general needs to put in place new guardrails to tackle head on the dangers arising from AI and related new technologies and before it is too late. Related to this and not any less significant is the need to fill in the human rights protection lacuna relating to the operation of big business and institute legally binding and effective system of accountability of businesses for human rights.  Here as well, the African Commission has adopted a resolution and is working on a study to help accomplish this ambition. 

This moment presents us with an invitation to rethink both the approach of the human rights movement and its priority issues of concern. There is a need to expand the approach to human rights work beyond court litigation and reactive expressions of outrage.

There is a need ‘to address the challenges people actually face, looking beyond narrow political rights to address the deeper causes of economic and social exclusion.’ This will be the key factor that will determine whether the faith of people in human rights will deepen or suffer further erosion in the years to come.

The choice before the human rights system is stark – continue in a business-as-usual fashion and face irrelevance in the effort to overcome the structural conditions of oppression affecting the vast majority of people in the world? Or reprioritise its focus, its approach and sense of urgency to deal with the human rights issues which, in the context of COVID-19, have become the defining human rights issues of our time: impunity for atrocities and violations of IHL, massive poverty and widening inequality, gender oppression, racism, the democratic governance recession, the climate emergency?