Visionary manifesto of human rights still has power to inspire


OPINION:The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is as relevant today as 60 years ago, writes Micheál Martin

DECEMBER 10th, 1948, was a date of immense significance. Still reeling from the devastating effects of two world wars, the international community came together in a unique expression of humanity's highest aspirations. The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly was, and remains, an extraordinary achievement.

Sixty years later, it is perhaps difficult for us to understand today exactly how radical the declaration was for its time. The determination and vision of the drafters - chief among them Eleanor Roosevelt - produced a document which for the first time set out the universal human rights enjoyed by all individual persons.

This was a fundamental shift which recognised the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings, regardless of race, sex, religion or origin.

In a world that had for too long been marked by its divisions and disagreements, the declaration proclaimed a common and united standard.

The 30 articles of the declaration set out a series of rights and fundamental freedoms not for states, but for individual human beings. A key feature of the declaration is its concept that all rights - civil, cultural, economic, political and social - are intertwined and that all must be vindicated for the dignity of the human person to be fully realised.

The declaration has been translated into 377 languages, more than any other text - an Ghaeilge san áireamh - making it truly the property of all of the citizens of the world.

Since it first came into existence the declaration has struck a chord that has reverberated throughout the decades, crossing boundaries and divides. It has provided the inspiration for numerous rights movements, sparking consciousness and sustaining courage.

The declaration has also provided the cornerstone for the human rights architecture of the United Nations and all legally binding human rights treaties have roots in the document.

Ireland was not yet a member of the United Nations when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, but successive governments have been proud to give high priority to its principles in domestic and foreign policies over the past 60 years. Ireland has ratified the six core UN human rights treaties and a wide range of other international human rights instruments.

Irish Aid, our overseas development programme, in working with some of the poorest and least developed communities in the world, seeks to vindicate the human rights enunciated in the declaration.

The European Union did not yet exist when the declaration came into being, but respect for fundamental rights is a core value of the union. At the dawn of the 21st century the institutions of the union solemnly proclaimed the Charter of Fundamental Rights, reaffirming the importance of fundamental rights and making them more visible for the citizen.

The charter draws its inspiration from the declaration and like the declaration sees dignity as the basis for fundamental rights.

The union places an ever increasing emphasis on the importance of human rights in its relations with third countries. Recent years have also seen a steady growth in concerted EU action in international human rights forums.

The series of short stories inspired by the articles of the declaration, which The Irish Times has been running in conjunction with Amnesty, has been a particularly innovative contribution to raising awareness. The deeply human needs and aspirations behind each article have been brought to life in the true spirit of the declaration itself. The Department of Foreign Affairs was glad to sponsor the commemorative supplement which appeared in The Irish Timesyesterday.

The 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights offers us an opportunity to renew our commitment to securing the declaration's promise of dignity and justice for all.

A keen sense of justice is something which we cherish in Ireland and which is at the heart of the declaration. In marking this important anniversary we should remember all those around the world who dream of one day realising the rights set out in the declaration.

They call us, in the words of Seamus Heaney, "to speak on their behalf in my own tongue"; to provide a voice for those who are still struggling to make their own voices heard.

• Micheál Martin is Minister for Foreign Affairs