Children in a classroom in Cambodia
In addition to political freedoms, the Universal Declaration spells out the right to an adequate standard of living, including access to food, housing, medical care and education. Photo: Chansok Lay/UNDP Cambodia

On a straw mat on a hot day in the courtyard of a Buddhist pagoda in 1992 was the first time I understood the mighty reach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Cambodia at that time was one of the poorest countries in the world, emerging from a quarter century of conflict that included the horrors inflicted by the Khmer Rouge. Most Cambodians were struggling to survive, subject to thuggish local police and the control of a militarized unelected government. 

But the villagers, students and farmers who came to the pagoda that day heard words of hope from a new kind of Cambodian organization: a human rights group. It was the first time that they had ever had a chance to hear about these rights – the result of the more open political environment created by the UN transitional authority that was preparing the way for free elections. The organizer passed around comic books that illustrated each of the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration. Most Cambodians couldn’t read; the pictures told most of the story. I remember the drawing of a smiling, banner-carrying crowd for Article 20: “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” The organizer gestured to all of us sitting around the courtyard, as if to say: “See? Freely assembled.”

The organizers that day brought only the words and ideas in that comic book. But they had an electrifying effect and set off a clamour of discussion and determination: “I have all these rights? I already have them? And everyone has agreed that I have them?”

From those first steps, the movement for human rights in Cambodia grew. Throughout the country, some Cambodians started carefully documenting abuses around them, submitting meticulously recorded notes to the UN mission’s human rights section. One measure of growing confidence in exercising their rights: despite brutal intimidation including threats and murder of some opposition party members, Cambodians voted in droves, with a 90 percent turnout. 

In the years since then, I’ve seen the experience replicated around the world: in rural India, in a provincial capital in Sierra Leone, in Native American communities in Oklahoma, USA. Where people understand their rights, they are more likely to organize and advocate on their own behalf to protest injustice. That’s part of the universal effect of the Universal Declaration.

The Declaration itself, entering its 70th year of universal agreement by all countries of the world, sets human aspirations at a high level. It bars discrimination and unfair treatment, and promises liberty and security, freedom from slavery or torture, fair trials; and freedom of religion, of participation in government, of movement and asylum from persecution. It predates global digital communications by five decades and yet presciently promises freedom of opinion and expression “through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

While those rights mainly relate to people’s civil and political life, the Universal Declaration also promises high standards for people’s economic and social life. It spells out the right to decent work for equal pay, to an adequate standard of living, health and well-being, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, education.

When I look at the Declaration, I see how our organization, the United Nations  Development Programme, works to prevent and end abuses of many of these economic and social rights. Fighting to eradicate poverty, UNDP’s support to governments helps create more jobs – especially for women – better access to health care, legal protections for people to provide for, educate and protect their families. The clean energy and biodiversity that UNDP promotes supports health, livelihoods and prosperity.   

In dark times, some may look at the Universal Declaration and say, so what? There are still huge gaps between this powerfully articulated aspiration of humanity and the reality of how millions of people live, and the conduct of their governments. But these international standards have huge, enduring power; they give people something to point to, something that can be used to hold governments to account, and to challenge injustice and abuse

And as more and more people emerge from poverty every year, as more people get education and health care, and as they live in more peaceful and stable societies, you can see the reasons for optimism. That energy drives the promise of the Universal Declaration: that every person will be “free and equal, in dignity and rights”.

About the author
Mila Rosenthal is Director of Communications at UNDP and Adjunct Professor of Human Rights at Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter: @RosenthalMila

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