"[R]ecognition of 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."
Preamble, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
On this day in 1948, the United Nations (UN) adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Looking back at the horrors of the Second World War, countries across the world - China to Chile, Australia to America, Russia to Lebanon - came together to say it must never again be acceptable for a government to commit such atrocities, in particular the systematic murder of 11 million Jewish, disabled, black and Roma people. The UN's theme for this year's Human Rights Day is "Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always", sending the clear message that our human rights are as relevant today as they were when they were written down at the end of the Second World War. With the UK Government signalling its intention to "scrap" our Human Rights Act and consult on a replacement "British Bill of Rights" in the New Year, this year's Human Rights Day is a great reminder of the importance of human rights for everyone today.
Our rights, our freedoms
Of course nations and societies have adopted bills of rights over the centuries, including our ancient Magna Carta in 13th century England, often born from conflict or civil unrest challenging the powerful. However, the UDHR heralded a new way, establishing for the first time universal standards that apply to all of us, regardless of who we are, where we come from or what we may have done. Adopted by the nations of the world without dissent, the UDHR sets out the human rights all people hold, from the rights to life, liberty, respect for family life and education, to freedom from torture, slavery and arbitrary detention.
The UDHR paved the way for our modern human rights laws across the world - the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Children's Rights Convention to name a few. The UDHR inspired our own Human Rights Act, which takes 16 of the rights written down in the European Convention on Human Rights and brings them into our law here at home.
This year's Human Rights Day has an added significance here in the UK for many reasons, not least because we are also celebrating 15 years of our Human Rights Act. The Human Rights Act means all laws in the UK must be compatible with our human rights, and public authorities must act in a way that protects and respects our human rights. In the worst case scenario, we can ask a local court or tribunal for a remedy when our human rights are put at risk or violated. Whether it's making sure that learning disabled children can get to school, ensuring that a mother can still see her children as she seeks treatment for mental health problems, or getting justice for bereaved families of soldiers killed in the line of duty, our Human Rights Act protects all of us in everyday situations, often without us realising it is there.
At the British Institute of Human Rights, we have lots of Human Rights Day celebrations up our sleeve, including:
• "Universal Human Rights: Protections across the UK, Europe and Beyond", a morning panel discussion with speakers from the Council of Europe, academics and researchers from across the UK.
• Celebrating 15 Years of the Human Rights Act: an afternoon event in the Houses of Parliament, kindly hosted by Lord Low and Baroness Prashar. We will hear from Sir Nicolas Bratza, former president of the European Court of Human Rights, Simon Israel, Channel 4 news presenter, and Mark Neary, a father for whom the Human Rights Act was vital in bringing home his son Steven when the authorities unlawfully detained him after respite care.
• Our annual Human Rights Day letter will be published on a full page in The Times, uniting the voices of a whole host of different organisations who all recognise that our Human Rights Act is a cause for celebration, and that undermining our protections is to the detriment of us all, as individuals and as a society.
• Recognising the important role of the media, we are also launching Human Writes, our new newspaper, in Parliament! Telling the real stories of how the Human Rights Act works, Human Writes will inform and empower people.
• And finally - but certainly not least - we're running a digital campaign at #HumanRightsDay, where everyone can join in and share their stories of using our Human Rights Act for positive social change.
In 1948, governments from all over the globe set down in Article 1 of the UDHR that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." Injustice, indignity and inequality remain a feature of societies the world over. Here in the UK events at Stafford Hospital, where hundreds of people experienced inhuman and degrading treatment due to understaffing at the hospital, the extreme abuse of disabled people in publicly-funded care at facilities such as Winterbourne View, and attempts to undermine our right to freedom of assembly through the proposed Trade Union Bill all remind us that much work remains to be done to ensure the promise of the UDHR has meaning in our small places close to home.
So today on Human Rights Day, join the British Institute of Human Rights and many other voices in celebrating the achievements of our domestic and international human rights laws in bringing about change for the better. And join us too in speaking up for one of the most important tools that we hope to retain for our work towards a better future - our Human Rights Act.