The United Nations General Assembly at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, in December 1948 when the declaration was first adopted (Photo: STF/AFP/Getty Images)
Each year, the United Nations sets aside December 10 as Human Rights Day to bring attention to the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year marks two special anniversaries: 65 years ago today, the UN formally adopted the declaration in the wake of the Second World War; and 20 years ago, it adopted the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, which was an attempt to implement the principles set out in the Universal Declaration.
"As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, let us intensify our efforts to fulfill our collective responsibility to promote and protect the rights and dignity of all people everywhere," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a statement.
One of the tangible outcomes of the Vienna Declaration was the creation of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), an agency specifically set up to promote and protect rights around the world. In a statement today, the current commissioner Navi Pillay argued that in the years since her office was created, there have been more advances than many people realize.
"The fundamentals for protecting and promoting human rights are largely in place," she wrote. "These include a strong and growing body of international human rights law and standards, as well as institutions to interpret the laws, monitor compliance and apply them to new and emerging human rights issues."
Among these advances, according to the OHCHR, is the formation of the International Criminal Court in 2002, which offers a forum for punishing serious violations of human rights. Other improvements include the creation of the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture and placing the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender individuals on the international agenda.
Of course, there are still many challenges ahead for those hoping to promote human rights around the world. As Pillay said in her statement, "The Vienna Declaration should be viewed as a blueprint for a magnificent construction that is still only half built. Women, she pointed out, "continue to suffer discrimination, violence and persecution," as do minority groups and migrants.
Today, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird issued a statement reaffirming Canada's human rights commitments. “This year’s Human Rights Day comes at a time of global remembrance for Nelson Mandela, one of the last century’s greatest champions of human rights," he said. "It is our duty to defend the rights of the oppressed and give voice to the voiceless." Baird pointed to Canada's introduction of a UN resolution on child, early and forced marriage, and the recent establishment of the Office of Religious Freedom.
Not everyone agrees that Canada is doing all it can, however. A group of Canadian organizations and individuals led by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association signed an open letter today calling on Canada to "renew its role as a leader for refugee rights." According to the group, "Canada is failing to respect refugees’ human rights" by reducing the number of people being resettled in Canada and cutting access to health care for refugees (some provinces have stepped in to provide the care themselves, most recently Ontario).
And for Canadians, today marks another significant human rights anniversary: last year on December 10, the Idle No More movement launched a National Day Of Action to protest the effects of federal government policies on aboriginal communities — particularly Bill C-45, which they said weakened First Nations participation in environmental issues. And today, Idle No More protesters are marching on Parliament Hill to oppose what they call the federal government's "unilateral" approach to First Nations education.