human rights

[OPINION] The forgotten role of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Francis Tom Temprosa

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[OPINION] The forgotten role of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Nico Villarete/Rappler

'In the Philippines, a survey shows that almost 40% of Filipinos rate themselves as having no extensive or adequate knowledge of human rights'

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the document which first heralded the different rights in our modern time. Seventy-five years is certainly not a long time in the long march of history, but long enough for a movement to reflect on progress, failures, and persistent challenges. 

Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, the declaration’s 30 articles set standards of treatment by states on the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural lives of the people and articulates our duties and responsibilities to each another. People have the rights to life, freedom of expression, assembly, and equally, to food, work, and culture, to give a few examples. States should respect the people’s exercise of these rights, protect people from violations, and enable their fulfillment. 

Drafters of the declaration, led by US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, designed the declaration to not only be an aspirational, but also an educational, document. By declaring what the different human rights are, people will know their rights, know what they are entitled to, know how they deserve to be treated as humans, and know that they should take action. 

The drafters were realistically aware that the declaration would not be able to address all the evils of the world. That would just be impossible. But it would enable us, humans, to maintain a minimum sense of dignity in the face of human suffering.

Unknown to many, the Philippines actively pushed for the declaration, recommending revisions to the initial draft. When the text was presented for debate, Carlos P. Romulo defended the draft, saying that it was for man’s “confidence” that “executive, legislative, and judicial powers could not impair his fundamental rights.”

Human rights, after all, set standards for states to follow on how they should treat people as people. The strength of the declaration lies in the “universalization” of rights – meaning, we all have rights and all rights apply to us all. There are no exceptions whatsoever. 

Seventy-five years had passed, but to many, it is as if rights had not been articulated in the declaration – ironically the most translated document in the world – and decades of educating people about rights had reached minimal impact.

In the Philippines, a survey shows that almost 40% of Filipinos rate themselves as having no extensive or adequate knowledge of human rights. Many believed though that human rights violations occurred during the last administration’s anti-drug campaign.

Narratives of people not knowing human rights, or having misconceptions about rights, are common. Worse, rights are perceived to be the “enemy of the government” or the “people,” not an ally in public service for the betterment of people’s lives. 

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Educators like me have met young people who dare to dream of a brighter future, despite the odds stocked against them – poverty, the lack of education, and the fear of not having anything to eat the next day. But they do not know their rights. They do not know their rights as children, their rights as students in public schools, and their other entitlements as young people. 

Many of those with different entitlements under the law – the elderly, indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, women, people who just live by the day to make both ends meet, and many others – are unaware of rights obtaining to them. 

Through educational campaigns, for instance, senior citizens and persons with disability have expressed to me that they are not aware of their full entitlements to statutory discounts and how to claim them. People accosted relate to me how they had remained uneducated comprehensively about their right to counsel and other rights in detention, including the right to a speedy trial. 

Some police officers and military personnel, who despite the most noble of intentions and desire to serve, are not fully aware of the right things to do and their responsibilities. One persistent challenge, to give an example, is for police officers to know by heart the Marinda Rights and the Anti-Torture Warning under Republic Act No. 9745 or the Anti-Torture Act of 2009, which should be read or imparted to people taken into police custody. Another tenuous issue is the legal, legitimate, and human rights-compliant use of deadly force.

Clearly, while there had been headways, more should be done to teach people their rights. Training institutions should be well resourced and equipped to teach rights. Those who wield power and force, government officials, are much able to perform duties well with knowledge of human rights. Learning of rights, in the first place, also prevents conflicts and violations of rights.

Knowing the universal declaration and making it known is a larger issue that creeps into the quality of our educational systems and calls into question the content of school curricula, whether in police and military schools, in law schools, or in basic and undergraduate education in general. They also implore us to democratize legal knowledge.

While human rights education, even for a short time, improves knowledge, positive attitudes, and commitment, the rate in which people do not have knowledge about their rights on a global scale is also appalling. Very few countries in the world, like Costa Rica, make human rights education mandatory. 

This year’s anniversary thus comes at a time when we feel as though we are reliving the 1940s when modern rights had not been yet fully articulated. Wars are ongoing, though this time in Ukraine and Gaza. People are dying by the thousands. Europe remains a flashpoint, as it did in the 1940s, with superpowers battling for world domination in a proxy war in Ukraine.

The search for international justice and the fight against impunity amidst human rights violations appear to be also elusive in many places. Just as states in the 1940s debated options to hold the Nazi accountable for war crimes before the Nuremburg Tribunal, we too are back to exploring contested options to bring alleged perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity, including massive extrajudicial killings, before the International Criminal Court.  

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When the declaration was adopted in 1948, the world was still reeling from the Second World War and nations were rebuilding themselves out of its ashes. This year, we are both recovering from several wars and averting present conflicts from escalating into larger wars.

But the faith that the people have placed on human rights as a liberating movement since the declaration’s adoption – which is both its vice and virtue – leads to the realistic view that human rights challenges will always remain, and the pragmatic solution is to march head on, hold the line, for human rights. 

The forgotten role of the universal declaration, which celebrates 75 years, is to fight to win against the ignorance of rights. Anniversaries carry profound symbolisms, representing not only the passage of time but also an ongoing dedication to a cause. We need to reshape and change the misconceptions and myths that have demonized and vilified human and other legal rights in recent years.

If the declaration were to be a person, then it would have already lived an entire lifetime, but its life, legacy and our task of educating for rights are definitely far from over. –

Francis Tom Temprosa is a lawyer and professor of human rights law at the Ateneo de Manila University School of Law. He is also Professorial Lecturer 1 and Member of the Corps of Professors of the Supreme Court’s Philippine Judicial Academy. He is a Doctor of Juridical Science candidate (Grotius Fellow) at the University of Michigan Law School in the United States where he graduated with a Master of Laws degree (DeWitt Scholar). He was a recipient of the CHED K-to-12 Graduate Scholarship Abroad Grant (later renamed Fulbright-CHED). 

The views expressed in the above piece are not reflective of the writer’s institutional affiliations.

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  1. ET

    Unfortunately, we had two lawyers who led the violation of Human Rights in our country. The first one was Marcos Sr. and the second one was Digong Duterte. They were the ones we expected to know most about Human Rights and perhaps had taken their Oath to uphold and defend them, but they did the opposite. Let us just hope and pray that a third lawyer will not lead our country and do what these two previous ones did. That third lawyer might be VP Sara (SWOH) Duterte.

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