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UDHR at 70: a beacon in dark times

(As part of a Liberal International [LI] campaign to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, parliamentarians from LI member parties have been invited to write opinion pieces pertaining to some of the UDHR’s primary articles.)

This year, we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a blueprint adopted by world leaders to set humanity on a trajectory toward increased security and greater freedoms.

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Rapid decolonization across continents, development of democratic institutions, and a faster rate of growth and human progress than has ever been recorded followed in the decades after the UDHR’s adoption. So why should the UDHR matter to people in the Philippines, Denmark or any other part of the world today?

We, the authors, are parliamentarians half a world apart—separated by sprawling continents, vast oceans, ethnic nuances and unique traditions. But we are united by our values: the rule of law, human rights, and individual responsibility, among others. The scale of our physical separation or differing cultural backgrounds in no way prevents us from spotting injustice in the world, coming together, and fighting to correct it. Right now, we believe, this fight has not been as important as it is now.

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In 1948, the world’s political leaders possessed an unambiguous motivation, a purpose, and a clear sense of direction—at the heart of which sat democratic ideals like justice. Today, many world leaders are questioning, indeed even turning their backs on, international cooperation, simply wishing to avoid the first hint of trouble. No group in our societies—young, old, poor, educated, one race or another—is exempt from the challenges we face in one form or another.

The values enshrined in the UDHR are in desperate need of resuscitation. If freedom-loving, democracy-cherishing peoples fail to come together, to act, to speak out soon, then we would quickly discover that events have taken over and that we had acted too late. Populist-nationalists have our democracies in their sights, and they have already fired the opening salvo.

The specter of creeping authoritarianism draped in the cloak of populist rhetoric has led to the need to defend human rights as if they’re the problem, rather than a crucial part of the solution.

Today, it is not enough to oppress and abuse so blatantly. Now, it has to be done in a slow, sneaking manner. First, they strip you of your dignity and vilify you; then they falsify charges against you. Finally, the point is held in stark relief—the cost of dissent evident for all to see.

In 2015, as the Philippines’ justice secretary under President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, and Morten as Denmark’s minister of the economy and interior, my country was winning plaudits for its social and economic advancement. Three short years later, and most indicators show President Duterte’s Philippines is in serious trouble. The so-called “war on drugs” has seen tens of thousands extrajudicially killed, and politicians incarcerated without credible evidence.

We cannot sit by while Russian meddling delivers repressive governments in certain European countries; as the politics of division is permitted to pervade the United States; or when the human rights that protect workers, voters and the vulnerable in parts of Asia are throttled to further enrich the powerful.

Inaction is a choice, not a defense. One of the fathers of British liberalism, John Stuart Mill, summarized this forcefully when he wrote: “Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more… than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

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At its core, the UDHR is a device, a functional mechanism, to bring world leaders together and agree on a basic set of principles relating to the treatment of people. If a president here or a prime minister there begins to stray from these commitments, then it is our joint responsibility, from senior politicians to grassroots campaigners, to stand up, to object, and to work together to ensure that everyone honors his or her commitments.

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