Human Rights Day is observed on 10th December every year. It was the day in 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is available in more than 500 languages and is the most translated document in the world. Two Indian women, Hansa Mehta and Lakshmi Menon, played a key role in formulating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The UN Secretary-General Antonia Guterres in his message for Human Rights Day 2019 said, “Globally, young people are marching, organizing, and speaking out:
For the right to a healthy environment…
For the equal rights of women and girls…
To participate in decision-making…
And to express their opinions freely…”
“Every single person is entitled to all rights: civil, political, economic, social and cultural. Regardless of where they live. Regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, social origin, gender, sexual orientation, political or other opinion, disability or income, or any other status.”
Eleanor Roosevelt’s leading role as Chairperson of the drafting committee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been well documented. But other women also played essential parts in shaping the document.
History of Human Rights Day:
Human Rights Day is observed every year on 10th December — the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): a milestone document proclaiming the inalienable rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Available in more than 500 languages, it is the most translated document in the world.
Women who shaped the Universal Declaration:
First lady of the United States of America from 1933 to 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed, in 1946, as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly by United States President Harry S. Truman. She served as the first Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights and played an instrumental role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At a time of increasing East- West tensions, Eleanor Roosevelt used her enormous prestige and credibility with both superpowers to steer the drafting process toward its successful completion. In 1968, she was posthumously awarded the United Nations Human Rights Prize.
Hansa Mehta of India, the only other female delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1947-48, was a staunch fighter for women’s rights in India and abroad. She is widely credited with changing the phrase “All men are born free and equal” to “All human beings are born free and equal” in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
A diplomat and feminist leader from the Dominican Republic, Minerva Bernardino was instrumental in arguing for inclusion of “the equality of men and women” in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Together with other Latin American women (Bertha Lutz of Brazil and Isabel de Vidal of Uruguay), she had also played a crucial role in advocating for the inclusion of women’s rights and nondiscrimination based on sex in the United Nations Charter, which in 1945 became the first international agreement to recognize the equal rights of men and women.
As a delegate to the General Assembly’s Third Committee on social, humanitarian and cultural matters, which in 1948 spent 81 meetings discussing the draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Begum Shaista Ikramullah of Pakistan advocated for emphasis on freedom, equality and choice in the Declaration. She championed the inclusion of Article 16, on equal rights in marriage, which she saw as a way to combat child marriage and forced marriage.
As Chairperson of the Sub- Commission on the Status of Women in 1946, and then of the Commission on the Status of Women in 1947, Bodil Begtrup of Denmark advocated for the Universal Declaration to refer to “all” or “everyone” as the holders of the rights, rather than “all men.” She also proposed including the rights of minorities in Article 26 on the right to education, but her ideas were too controversial at the time. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes no explicit mention of minority rights, but guarantees equal right to everyone.
As Chairperson of the Commission on the Status of Women in 1948, Marie-Hélène Lefaucheux of France successfully advocated for a mention of non-discrimination based on sex to be included in Article 2. The final text of the article states that, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
Evdokia Uralova of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was the Rapporteur of the Commission on the Status of Women to the Commission on Human Rights in 1947. She strongly argued for equal pay for women. Thanks to her, Article 23 states that “Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.” Together with Fryderyka Kalinowska of Poland and Elizavieta Popova of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, she also stressed the rights of persons in Non-Self-Governing Territories (Article 2).
Lakshmi Menon, delegate of India to the General Assembly’s Third Committee in 1948, argued forcefully for the repetition of non-discrimination based on sex throughout the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as for a mention of “the equal rights of men and women” in the preamble. She was also an outspoken advocate of the “universality” of human rights, strongly opposing the concept of “colonial relativism” that sought to deny human rights to people in countries under colonial rule. If women, and people under colonial rule, were not explicitly mentioned in the Universal Declaration, they would not be considered included in “everyone,” she argued.
Human Rights Day 2019 Theme: Youth Standing Up for Human Rights
After a year marked by the 30th anniversary celebrations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which culminated on 20th November, 2019, the UN’s plan is to capitalise on the current momentum and spotlight the leadership role of youth in collective movements as a source of inspiration for a better future.
Under the universal call to action “Stand Up for Human rights,” the UN aims to celebrate the potential of youth as constructive agents of change, amplify their voices, and engage a broad range of global audiences in the promotion and protection of rights. The campaign, led by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), is designed to encourage, galvanise, and showcase how youth all over the world stand up for rights and against racism, hate speech, bullying, discrimination, and climate change, to name a few.