James Joseph, JURIST’s UK Senior Editor and a Ph.D. student at King’s College London, reflects on 75 years of promises kept and broken from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention...
This weekend marks the 75th anniversary of one of the world’s most groundbreaking global pledges: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). On December 9 we see the anniversary of the Genocide Convention, signed on the December 9, 1948, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed 75 years ago. It represents an an important occasion that aims to raise awareness about human rights issues and to commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted by the United Nations after the atrocities of World War Two to prevent such dehumanization and killing from happening again and to establish a common framework that would provide a foundation for equality, justice and dignity for all, with freedoms all should enjoy without prejudice for nationality, race, religion or any other protected characteristic. The UDHR serves as a reminder to individuals and governments around the world to uphold and protect the fundamental rights and dignity of all individuals.
However, there are many examples around the world today today where countries are violating principles of the UDHR, such as conflicts denying children an education in Syria, unlawful killings in Saudi Arabia, the genocide of the Hazaras in Afghanistan, restrictions on women’s rights in Iran as well as atrocities seen in Israel and the West Bank, Ethiopia, the Tigray Region, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Eritrea, Armenia, Myanmar, Syria, and beyond.
Around the world, abuse of minorities and violations of human rights occur, including in India, Israel, and the Middle East. The United States is facing criticism for human rights issues, including Guantanamo Bay and the United Kingdom’s lack of ratification of the Istanbul Convention.
The success of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in establishing international human rights law and the importance of defending human rights and environmental defenders around the world. However, there is a major need for the government to take action to protect these defenders, who are facing immense pressure and being charged with atrocity crimes.
There are major gaps between the promise and the reality of these conventions, in that the high ideals of these conventions have still not been fully realized. While they changed the world by establishing new legal and moral standards, all too often the international response to human rights abuses and genocide has been inadequate. Responses are too frequently focused on acknowledging that a genocide has already occurred and sometimes punishing those responsible. It is important that justice is seen, but it falls short of fulfilling the original intention of Genocide Convention because there’s not enough focus on identifying potential genocides and preventing them before they grow. Genocide has repeatedly been perpetrated again and again, making us further from the promises of “never again” than we could ever imagine. Lessons have not been learned, whether on the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the slaughter of Tutsi in Rwanda, the massacres in Srebrenica, or the atrocities committed against the Yazidi people by the Islamic State/Daesh in 2014.
In the UK there are calls to prioritize human rights in trade deals, including environmental protections and supply chain due diligence. The connection between freedom of religion and mass atrocities, such as the Taliban’s attack on Afghanistan’s Hazara community and the persecution of Christians in North Korea, the Middle East, Nigeria, and Pakistan, have continued with impunity. Muslims in India are consistently targeted, and Buddhists and Christians in North Korea are said to be imprisoned without due process. There are concerns about the lack of accountability for these acts of violence and the importance of upholding human dignity as a fundamental human right. The UK government has led the way in mass atrocity prevention but lacks consistent response to unfolding crimes. Proposals currently under the Rwanda plan to pick and choose obligations under the Human Rights Act and our international human rights obligations have consistently been questioned.
The US government’s inconsistent response to atrocity crimes, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing violence in Nigeria, needs improvement, while acknowledging the difficulty of addressing these issues due to the influence of big business and the lack of understanding among the general population.
There is a need for a national strategy on mass atrocity crimes to prevent future events as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which currently sits paralyzed to reform amid the actions of the permanent five members placing domestic and geopolitical interests before the interests of the international community at large.
Monitoring organizations identify as many as 20 emergencies worldwide involving persecution and killings meeting definitions of genocide each year, yet the international community has still not developed a consistent strategy for prevention and early response.
Several ongoing and recent crises were highlighted as examples of where more could have been done to prevent mass atrocities. Situations across the world are in dire need of action. As the culture of impunity grows, malign actors and rogue governments continue to put civilians in harm’s way. In Sudan in particular, the scale of killings, rapes and displacements were described as reaching genocidal levels. The international response has been inadequate, with the UN set to close its mission in Sudan despite the dire humanitarian emergency.
The UK government’s own policies have also threatened to undermine human rights in some cases. Plans to deport asylum seekers from oppressive regimes like Eritrea to Rwanda were criticized as a violation of the spirit of protection enshrined in the conventions. More broadly, cutting foreign aid and proposed legislation overriding parts of the Human Rights Act were seen as damaging the UK’s commitment to upholding international standards.
However, it must also be acknowledged that the challenges of preventing atrocities today are even greater than in 1948. The world is more polarized, conflicts more fragmented and complex. Misinformation spreads at unprecedented speed online, while accountability through the UN system is hindered by geopolitical divisions. A new, strategic thinking is required to navigate these challenges and renew the UK’s international reputation on human rights.
A prevention-first approach should be assumed, focusing on early warning through extensive monitoring, mapping the networks driving conflicts, and empowering local civil society groups who can spot escalations. The UK must harness its diplomatic network and fulfill a collective voice of prevention, early action and mitigation, across sectors of law, business, and health to support accountability, cut off perpetrators’ sources of funding, and pressure armed groups towards de-escalation.
However, it is not all bad, with a new Convention on Crimes Against Humanity to strengthen the legal framework. Much more remains to be done, through consistent leadership, to turn policy commitments on atrocity prevention into reality on the ground with strategies to harness political will, weight and pressure on malign actors, with monitoring and swift responses.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has played an important role in conflicts we’re seeing on our screens, day in and day out. However, the ability to prosecute these crimes with lengthy trials, and no end to immunity, does little to translate in meaningful justice for survivors. The need to harness and empower accountability mechanisms like the ICC, while an important part of upholding international law and preventing impunity for mass atrocities, seems to be a losing battle.
Protection of Civilians
There is also a need to prioritize the protection of civilians in conflicts. They are the ones who always suffer the most, with limited recourse. The international response remains inadequate. Civilians continue to be the innocent party in war, killed in places like Gaza, Ukraine, and Nagorno-Karabakh. The international community must do more to protect civilians and cut off perpetrators from external backing that fuels violence against civilian populations. Empowering local civil society groups who can help protect civilians when violence escalates is key. It is clear that the international community is still failing to fully uphold its responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocities and human rights violations, as envisioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Genocide Convention. Several key points indicate this responsibility is not being met. Victims are often let down when duty bearers fail to act.
New challenges, like disinformation, geopolitics, and more complex conflicts, are hindering prevention and accountability through the UN. More needs to be done to support early warnings, protect human rights defenders, cut off perpetrator networks, and pressure parties to de-escalate and protect civilian populations.
It is the all-too-common problem of paralysis and inaction from the international community in the face of mass atrocity crimes. Ethnic cleansing and targeted violence in Sudan were met with complete silence from UN leadership in New York. Despite communicating evidence directly from the site of the atrocities via new digital technologies, the UN failed to acknowledge or respond to the urgent situation. This paralysis allowed the genocide to escalate largely unchecked in its early stages. By the time international pressure mounted and a response finally mobilized, many lives were already lost that could have been saved through swifter action. The case in Sudan shows how inaction in the face of early warning signs can have devastating human costs and allow mass killings to reach genocidal proportions due to a lack of political will to intervene.
Pursuing justice and accountability helps uphold the rights and dignity of victims by investigating their suffering, acknowledging what happened to them, and holding perpetrators responsible through legal means like trials. These actions aim to provide some measure of redress, although support systems are still constrained.
Seventy-five years after these conventions, the international community is still failing in its fundamental responsibility to take all necessary actions to prevent civilians from suffering mass atrocities and rights violations. A renewed, strategic prevention approach is clearly still needed. Only by fully implementing a strategic, prevention-focused approach can the UK and international community hope to finally fulfill the vision of the Universal Declaration and Genocide Convention to ensure that no population ever faces mass atrocities again with impunity. Seventy-five years after these landmark agreements were adopted, honoring their ideals requires renewed commitment and action and adapting to today’s challenges. As long as any community remains at risk of genocide, the unfulfilled duty to protect human rights for all will remain a task for governments around the world. The international has become the domestic. With international crimes coming closer to home than they have since the Cold War, these issues need to be addressed, impunity ended, and the so-called lofty ideal of respect for basic human decency restored across the world. After all this should not be too much to ask for.
James Joseph is JURIST’s UK Senior Editor and a Ph.D. student at King’s College London.
Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.