Seventy-five years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the international community is again challenged to cooperate or perish. This statement by Chilean diplomat Hernan Santa Cruz, one of the intellectual fathers of the UDHR, has acquired heightened meaning as a result of the extreme suffering caused by the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East.
The UDHR was humanity’s response to the “disregard and contempt for human rights (which) have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”. It affirmed “the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear”.
t embodied rights that the UN Charter adopted in 1945 to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, promote social progress and improve living standards.
Unfortunately, the objectives that underpin the establishment of the UN three years prior are still aspirations, and there appears to be a regression in global cooperation.
In addition to the horrors experienced by the victims of wartime atrocities, large segments of the world’s population live in fear of misery, and the world confronts several simultaneous crises: an unprecedented level of inequality, the triple planetary emergencies of climate change, pollution and loss of biodiversity, receding civic space, and the risk of new epidemics. Together, these crises hold a sword of Damocles over humanity.
Women and girls suffer disproportionately and unequally. The sexual assaults on women during Hamas’ brutal attacks on Israeli civilians on October 7 are a shocking example of this. Women and children also account for two-thirds of those killed in Gaza by Israel’s devastating military response.
In this bombardment, two mothers are killed every hour and seven women every two hours, while the rest survive in panic and anxiety. Survivors have been forced to flee their homes and seek protection in overcrowded shelters without food, water, medical supplies, or privacy, increasing the risk of death and further sexual violence.
Seventy-five years after the UDHR was proclaimed, the pursuit of gender equality remains elusive. If current trends continue, more than 340 million women and girls – eight per cent of all women worldwide – will live in extreme poverty by 2030. Nearly one in four will endure moderate or severe food insecurity.
It is imperative to restore the moral and legal foundations of the international system, which rests on respect for human rights, the principles of multilateralism, the values of democracy, and a rules-based global order. We cannot passively accept the dilution of the principles of the UN Charter and disregard for the rights enshrined in the UDHR.
In our context, adherence to the legal principles of human rights, which underpin humanist values, becomes an obligation rather than a choice. Its values must guide legal and economic conduct, because they create the conditions in which it becomes possible to achieve stability and sound international governance, discourage conflict, and reach equitable solutions to crises, including the climate emergency.
A recent initiative of the UN, supported mainly by countries of the global South, offers a shaft of hope. On November 22, states passed a historic resolution on international taxation. It introduced a process that could bring the discussion on global taxation from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a club of rich countries, to the UN.
This resolution, promoted by African states and other emerging countries, Including Cambodia, aims to create a convention on international tax cooperation. This would open a path to building a fairer and more inclusive international tax system, one that does not benefit rich countries alone or increase the wealth of the few but provides sufficient resources to developing economies, which are the big losers in the current system.
If the negotiations for such a convention go in the right direction, it could lead to higher tax revenue and, thus, more resources to invest in public services and development.
The key is to ensure that corporations pay a fair proportion of their income in tax and the revenues are distributed fairly among states.
At first sight, this may seem a small matter in the face of today’s threats. But the truth is that it responds to a historic demand of the global South and can give multilateralism a fresh start. It proves that the UN is still a forum where we can cooperate not to perish, as my compatriot Santa Cruz pointed out.
Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the UDHR Drafting Committee, once said: “It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”
Today, this means defending and strengthening the institutions of global governance and taking practical steps to confront the catastrophes of our time, promote social progress, improve living conditions and protect human rights for all.
Magdalena Sepulveda is a former UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. She is a member of the Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation (ICRICT) and executive director of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR).
The views expressed in this article are her own.