On Dec. 10, the world will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a document that outlines the basic freedoms that should be guaranteed to all people, everywhere, regardless of background, identity, or circumstances.
As the first globally-approved document dedicated to human rights — containing articles that apply to civic action, freedom from discrimination, and social protections, to name a few — the UDHR is responsible for incredible advancements made around the world.
Many countries have integrated the principles of the UDHR into their constitutions, laws, and legal frameworks, expanding rights for women, children, people with disabilities, minorities, and other vulnerable groups. All 193 member states of the United Nations have ratified at least one of the nine binding treaties influenced by the declaration.
While our world today may look different from when the UDHR was signed in 1948, ongoing global challenges have continued to impact progress on human rights.
For the first time in a generation, the number of people living in extreme poverty is rising. The effects of a warming planet are threatening peoples’ right to life, limiting access to food, housing, and health care.
Low-income countries and communities are facing the worst of the crisis now, while women and girls are being thrust into situations that disproportionately threaten their abilities to attend school, get a job, and make personal decisions about their lives and livelihoods.
At the root of all of these problems lies a lack of respect for human rights. That’s why, in honor of World Human Rights Day this year, we’re recognizing the many ways the UDHR is still relevant today, and how it can serve as a guide for the next 75 years of human rights advocacy.
1. Individuals affected by climate change face unequal access to life-saving resources.
While people living in low-income countries (which have contributed the least to global greenhouse gas emissions globally) are facing the worst of the climate crisis, climate change will impact us all in some way.
People experience poor air quality, extreme temperatures, food insecurity, and lost income because of extreme natural disasters or the burning of fossil fuels. For some of us, our countries’ refusal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has poisoned our water sources or cost the people we love their lives.
Without the UDHR, which recognizes the rights to housing, medical care, and necessary social services, governments would feel no pressure or obligation to take action on the climate crisis and reduce its human toll.
2. As many as 783 million people are facing chronic hunger.
Because of the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing war in Ukraine, and the proliferation of conflict and crises, among other structural issues in the production and supply of food, hundreds of millions of people around the world do not know where their next meal is coming from.
The growing hunger crisis our world is experiencing directly violates individuals’ fundamental human right to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food. As we consider the next few decades of the UDHR, it’s important for world leaders to recognize one of the key ways to implement the document is to ensure everyone, everywhere, has enough to eat.
3. Without access to education, millions of children are trapped in a cycle of poverty.
While the UDHR explicitly states that everyone has a right to education "at least at the elementary and fundamental stages," many children are still unable to attend school because of familial obligations, gender discrimination, or poverty.
UNESCO estimates that around 244 million children aren’t in school, threatening their abilities to maintain basic levels of literacy and numeracy, get a job, and earn a living. As long as children are unable to access their right to education, their chances of escaping poverty will continue to narrow and affect other aspects of their lives.
4. More than half of the global population is not fully covered by essential health services.
According to the World Health Organization, about 4.5 billion people are not fully covered by essential health services, leaving them vulnerable to serious complications in the face of illness or injury.
Being able to afford health care should not be a factor that determines whether someone lives or dies. That’s why the UDHR states that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being, underscoring the need for governments to work toward an equitable solution that addresses the global health crisis.
5. Poverty continues to exacerbate social disparities and threaten equality.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, but poverty continues to cause social disparities that undermine the UDHR’s essential principle of equality.
A lack of respect for human rights has allowed wealth inequality to soar. Currently, 9.2% of the global population lives on less than $2.15 a day. So many people are unable access the resources they need to survive, which means that the world has yet to ensure people can exercise Article 1 of the UDHR.
6. Women and girls are still unable to enjoy equal rights.
A document marked by its principles of freedom and equality, the UDHR is a roadmap for how we can ensure women and girls receive the same rights as men. Unfortunately, progress on gender equality has stalled in recent years, making it more important than ever to guarantee human rights are afforded to all people, regardless of gender.
With articles enshrining a person’s right to freedom from discrimination, as well as the right to enter into marriage with free and full consent, the UDHR can be applied to issues such as unequal pay, limited job opportunities, child marriage, and gender-based violence. Solving these issues will require a human rights-based approach and respect for women and girls globally.
7. The right to protest is routinely threatened.
Civic space, or the environment that enables people to participate in the political and social structures around them, is under threat and, arguably, shrinking. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, which rates the state of civic space in every country of the world, more than 28% of the world's population lives in countries rated as “closed.”
The UDHR guarantees the right to assemble and receive a fair and public hearing so that all individuals can fully participate in civil society. Unfortunately, there are far too many human rights defenders and citizens who are imprisoned every day for exercising their human rights.
What Can Global Citizens Do?
As we recognize the need to solve the above global issues, we can all look toward the UDHR as a way to mark our path forward. We can also use this year’s World Human Rights Day to acknowledge the lasting influence of the UDHR and what human rights means to each one of us individually.
Show your support for human rights by taking action with Global Citizen and by adding your photo to one of these filters and sharing it on social media using the hashtag #HumanRights75 and #Act4RightsNow.
You can also check out the UN Human Rights Office’s official countdown to Human Rights Day, and join their celebration on Dec. 11 and Dec. 12 to celebrate the 75th anniversary. Lastly, you can read the full text of the UDHR in your language here.
This article is part of a series connected to defending advocacy and civic space, made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.