Ensuring rights for all in a rapidly changing world

December 8, 2023
Children smiling

We must recalibrate and reconnect with the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights if we want to shape a future that lives up to its vision.

Photo: UNDP Zimbabwe

What do we all want? We want to be safe, secure and healthy. We want the people we hold dear to live in dignity, and to learn, love and laugh freely. We want the freedom to dream, aspire, and act without fear.  

Protecting our rights to do so was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 75 years ago, and it has been our North Star for human rights ever since.  

The world we live in today is vastly different to the world back then. And the future we look towards portends even more rapid change.  

The past three years have been defined by crises on a global scale. Conflict is at its highest since the Second World War. From Gaza to Ukraine, Sudan and Myanmar, people’s right to live without fear is being undermined. Climate change, brought about by humanity’s own actions, is stripping away the right of our children to a healthy and prosperous future. The COVID-19 pandemic brought to stark light the value of the right to health for all.  

Three-quarters of a century on, we are at an important inflection point, where we must recalibrate and reconnect with the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights if we want to shape a future that lives up to its vision. 

Doing so will not be easy. It will require action across many different spheres of life. Recognizing this, UNDP is prioritizing seven key areas where it is working to strengthen human rights. 

Dignity and equality of rights is needed for all people and the rights of people living in crisis and conflict must be assured 

The United Nations Secretary-General has called for increased focus on human rights in crisis. Addressing and preventing the root causes – and effects – of human rights violations is critical for advancing peace, justice, and inclusive governance in crisis and fragile contexts, and it is a central part of UNDP’s support to countries in crisis.  

In Ukraine, UNDP is supportign the Ukrainian Parliament’s Commissioner for Human Rights to address the challenges arising from the ongoing conflict and underscore the government’s commitment to safeguarding and promoting human rights throughout Ukraine. In Sudan, UNDP is working to safeguard development progress while also supporting emergency employment and essential services such as clean energy access and solar-powered water systems. 

People in the middle of rubble

Investing in human rights is vital to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals  

Photo: UNDP Afghanistan


If we don’t invest in human rights, we won’t achieve the Sustainable Development Goals 

Ninety percent of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) targets align with the obligations outlined in international human rights frameworks.  

However, halfway to the 2030 deadline, development progress and the realization of Agenda 2030 is under threat due to the combined impacts of climate change, conflict, overlapping energy, food and economic shocks, and lingering COVID-19 effects. Human rights can be part of proactive solutions helping to address contemporary development challenges and pushing progress towards Agenda 2030.  

By adopting a human rights-based approach, UNDP is working to ensure that no one is left behind as we strive for sustainable development. For example, UNDP has worked to promote synergies between human rights and SDG systems in eight countries, including Sierra Leone, Uruguay and Pakistan, boosting both the efficiency and effectiveness of national efforts to advance human rights and sustainable development. 

Human rights defenders must be able to speak out without fear 

Human rights defenders face alarming threats, including intimidation and reprisals, in the pursuit of a goal that should be a shared aspiration for all – the creation of fair and peaceful societies.  

In 2022, there was a 40 percent increase in the killings of human rights defenders, journalists, and trade unionists compared to 2021.  

UNDP works with civil society, human rights defenders and national human rights institutions around the world to ensure those that want to speak out have the freedom to do so. In Thailand, UNDP conducted a study looking into the protection of human rights defenders at the request of the Ministry of Justice.  

Young people must be included in efforts to protect the rights of future generations 

There are 1.2 billion young people in the world today, and UNDP recognizes the important role they play as positive agents of change. 

They have bold solutions to offer in the face of global crises, and must be supported to take on leadership roles in shaping public opinion, advocating for responsible climate behaviour, and mobilizing for stronger political commitment from governments and the private sector.  

UNDP’s Youth4Change initiative fosters an inclusive, safe and enabling environment for youth to lead and partner with other stakeholders on climate action. 

UNDP is prioritizing seven key areas where it is working to strengthen human rights.

Photos: UNDP Moldova (left) and Uzbekistan

Private sector has an important role to play 

Business can be a powerful driver of sustainable development, offering access to social and economic opportunities and a pathway to prosperity for many.  

Implementing human rights principles consistently and impartially across a company's global operations can have many benefits. It can contribute to reduced bribery and corruption and equal access to legal processes and protection under the law for all business entities.  

UNDP is working with governments, businesses, civil society, human rights defenders and academia to improve business and human rights practices around the world, including training over 1,000 businesses.   

Human rights and the environment are interconnected 

In the next 25 years, building resilience to biodiversity loss and climate change will be key to the realization of all human rights – including the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.  

This is because biodiversity loss is closely intertwined with climate change and human rights. UNDP helps protect the substantive and procedural rights for implementing the right to a safe, healthy and sustainable environment. In Vietnam, UNDP has helped develop an environmental and social management framework that guides natural resource management and biodiversity conservation.  

Digital technology must unite, not divide 

Technology can be a great enabler of equality and development by improving connectivity, financial inclusion, and public services, positively impacting the realization of human rights.  

But it can also have a dangerous downside, exacerbating existing inequalities and vulnerabilities. While over 80 percent of developed countries have access to the internet, only 36 percent of individuals in least-developed countries are online.  

UNDP puts human rights at the centre of its Digital Strategy, and supports countries to harness digital technology as a means to advocate for, protect, access, report on, and exercise human rights. In Mauritania, UNDP is working with the newly created Ministry of Digital Transition, Innovation and Public Sector Modernization to ensure that digital transformation includes and benefits the most vulnerable. 

As we look to the future 

Today’s world is not 1948’s world. And it won’t be 2048’s world either.  

But the essence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has yet – and will always – remain true; “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. 

By adapting to our present and future realities, while keeping the UDHR’s aspirations for a freer and fairer world as our guiding light, we stand the greatest chance of shaping a better world – based on human dignity and equality for us and future generations.