It was a cold December afternoon in 1948 in Paris, and people from around the world were gathered in a huge room to make an important historical decision. The Second World War had ended three years before and this decision could prevent the atrocities of the war from ever happening again.
After a few hours of deliberation, history was made and the future was set: the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) “as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations to the end that every individual and every organ of society … shall strive by teaching and educating to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, [among all peoples].”
It became the first globally approved document in human history to list out basic human rights that are to be universally protected, and it has directly inspired the adoption of more than 70 human rights treaties (and various human rights laws) in regions and countries around the world.
The 30 articles contained in the UDHR cover all human beings and apply to nearly every aspect of human life including (but not limited to) civil action, marriage and child rights, health care, social protection, education, and work rights.
This makes it an important document that everyone should familiarise themselves with, so that we can all be more involved in advocating for our rights in our daily lives.
In the 74 years since that landmark day (Dec. 10, which is now celebrated as World Human Rights Day) however, the world has continued to struggle with equality for all people and extreme inequality, in multiple forms, has persisted.
Recent examples like the Russian invasion of Ukraine (and subsequent displacement of millions of people), the global refugee crisis, vaccine inequality, and even climate change are some ways in which the world has failed to uphold the fundamental human rights outlined in the UDHR.
In Africa, the Eswatini and #EndSARS protests, voter suppression, arbitrary arrests of journalists and activists, internet shutdowns, and poor investment in health and education, are some examples of how African people continue to be deprived of the basic human rights provided for in the UDHR.
So — because knowledge and understanding of our rights is the first step in taking action to protect them — what are some of the most important of these globally guaranteed rights and why should Africans (and indeed everyone around the world) know about them? Let’s get into it.
1. Freedom, Rights, and Dignity From Birth
Article 1 of the UDHR partly reads: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This guarantees that all Africans are born free and equal to each other (as well as every other human being) and sets up the rest of the UDHR.
2. You Are Entitled to Rights Without Discrimination
“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. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional, or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs …,” reads the second article of the UDHR.
This means that all human beings are entitled to the rights listed in the UDHR regardless of their nationality, race, religion, language, or any other identifiers they may have. In other words, regardless of where you live or the kind of life you live, you are entitled to these fundamental human rights.
3. Slavery Is Prohibited in All Forms
The slave trade was one of the darkest periods of human history and the African continent experienced the worst of it. While there was no African representative on the commission that drafted the UDHR (wild, right?), Article 4 of the UDHR states: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”
This includes modern versions of slavery (including certain harmful financial practices, forced labour, and child labour) which have enslaved more people now than at any other time in human history.
4. You Are Protected Against Torture and Inhuman Punishment
The UDHR states that no human being shall be subject to “torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.” This is particularly relevant in Africa where there have been numerous reports of torture and other inhuman forms of punishment across many of its 54 countries in recent years. Just this month, on May 12, a Nigerian student was stoned, beaten, and burnt to death for alleged blasphemy.
Furthermore, news stories of recent years have highlighted the importance of restraint from security agencies and law enforcement, including, in the US, the deaths of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, and many others.
In Nigeria, the deaths of at least 15 peaceful protesters at the Lekki Tollgate during the #EndSARS protests against police brutality in October 2020 is another example that highlights the importance of calling out excessive use of force, just like activists in the US and Nigeria are doing.
5. Everyone Is Equal Before the Law
This guarantees everyone’s rights to be recognised and protected by the law, without discrimination of any kind. In other words, rich or poor, educated or not, whoever you are, it is your fundamental human right to be protected by the law.
Article 7 of the UDHR states: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.”
6. No One Should Be Arbitrarily Arrested
According to the UDHR, all human beings have the right not to be arrested, detained, or exiled without appropriate cause. Interestingly, in the countries with the smallest civil spaces — like Burundi, China, and the Philippines — arbitrary arrests are one of the most common ways governments threaten and suppress people’s voices.
7. Equality in Marriage and Consent to Marry
Everyone has a right to marry and found a family, per the UDHR’s Article 16, but in marriage all parties involved are also “entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage, and at its dissolution.” In other words, no spouse is superior to the other as guaranteed by their fundamental human rights.
Furthermore, marriage can happen “only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses,” which means that no one under the legal age of consent (especially children) can or should be married, thus guaranteeing that women and girls have agency and equality going into, and within, marriage. Practices like forced marriage, bride kidnapping, and child marriage infringe on that fundamental human right.
Child marriage is still a big issue in Africa (Nigeria alone has 22 million child brides, with 40% of all child brides being in West and Central Africa) and the basic rights of millions of young girls are being disregarded every day. Educating ourselves about our human rights, and understanding when our rights are being violated, is key to tackling some of the most pressing global issues that create and exacerbate extreme poverty — including gender inequality.
8. Freedom of Thought, Opinion, and Expression
Civic spaces where citizens can hold leaders accountable cannot exist without freedom of thought, opinion, and expression, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights codifies this as a basic human right that everyone is entitled to.
Article 19 of the UDHR states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
9. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Peaceful protests are a form of assembly and association which the UDHR guarantees as a basic human right. This means that everyone has the right to gather, peacefully, for a certain purpose (as in a protest) and can associate with whatever cause they deem important.
That said, everyone also has the right to not assemble or be a part of any association. “No one may be compelled to belong to an association,” says Article 20 of the UDHR.
10. Participation in Government, Access to Public Service, and Governance
The UDHR states that everyone has a “right to take part in the government of [their] country, directly or through freely chosen representatives” and guarantees the right “of equal access to public service in [their] country.”
Article 21 also goes further to advocate for a democratic society where the “will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government” and that governments shall be selected through “periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
Altogether, this means that participating in your country’s government through elections or taking up public office is a fundamental right you have. It also means that you have a right to access public services just like anyone else and your government should be democratic and subject to the will of the people.
11. Work, Equal Pay, and Discrimination in the Workplace
The UDHR’s Article 23 outlines the work rights that we all have, which include “the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work, and to protection against unemployment.”
It also grants everyone the right to not be discriminated against in the workplace for any reason and the “right to just and favourable remuneration” (and social protection if unemployed). Finally, Article 23 grants everyone the right to form, or join, unions to protect their interests in the workplace.
12. Rest Is a Basic Human Right
“Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay,” reads Article 24 of the UDHR. Yes, you read that correctly — rest from work is a fundamental human right.
This means that you are entitled to time off work and if your employer doesn’t limit your working hours or allow for paid holidays, they are infringing on your basic human rights.
13. Standard of Living and Well-Being
You are entitled to a standard of living that is adequate for your health and well-being “including food, clothing, housing and medical care, and necessary social services,” according to Article 25 of the UDHR.
The UDHR also codifies everyone’s right to social protection in the event that they are unable to work due to circumstances beyond their control (disability, sickness, bereavement, old age, etc.). Article 25 also guarantees mothers and children the right to special care and assistance, while all children (regardless of the circumstances of their birth) are entitled to social protection.
This means extreme poverty, which Global Citizen is working hard to end through our year-long campaign End Extreme Poverty NOW — Our Future Can’t Wait, is a violation of people’s human rights. That is why we must continue to hold leaders accountable and pressure them to commit to the fight against extreme poverty and its systemic causes.
14. Education Is a Basic Human Right
“Everyone has the right to education” is the first sentence of Article 26 of the UDHR, which guarantees everyone’s right to free (compulsory) elementary education as well as equal access to higher education based on merit.
It also says education must “promote understanding, tolerance, and friendship among all nations, racial, or religious groups” and gives parents the right to choose what kind of education their children get.
In other words, the fundamental human rights of all the African children (and those around the world, totalling 147 million children) who are out of school are being infringed upon. This is why we must continue to demand that leaders everywhere prioritise free elementary education for all children.
Apart from the fact that many people just aren’t aware of the provisions of the UDHR, the human rights it guarantees everyone isn’t a reality for millions of people. The world still has a long way to go before we can achieve the kind of equality codified in the UDHR but that’s why numerous activists and civil society organisations are fighting to make it a reality. Join the movement in taking action to support Global Citizen’s End Extreme Poverty NOW —Our Future Can’t Wait campaign and help protect the voices of millions of vulnerable people around the world.
This article was written in partnership with Harith General Partners, a funding partner of Global Citizen, whose founder and CEO, Tshepo Mahloele, is Africa’s Patron to Global Citizen’s “End Extreme Poverty NOW” campaign.