The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Forty Years After Its Adoption

By Sonia Boskov

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights laid out equal rights for all people and three fundamental principles governing human rights: rights are universal, inalienable and indivisible. John Humphrey worked as the executive secretary in the United Nations Human Rights Division of Freedom of Information from 1946 to 1966. In his speech “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Forty Years After Its Adoption”, which was given at a communications conference in 1988, Humphrey provides a comprehensive outline of Article 19 and its significance, the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the implications to the international political order as a result of its approval.

Article 19 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlines the fundamental freedoms of right to information, expression and opinion. In his speech, Humphrey asserts Article 19 as “the touchstone of all other freedoms”. The right to freedom of information and expression is an instrument for the implementation of further fundamental rights and freedoms. In addition, Article 19 is significant to human rights discourse in the Canadian context because the parliamentary hearings that occurred in response to the Gouzenko affair and the formation of civil liberties associations in the 1950s and 1960s such as the Jewish Labour Committee.

In his speech, Humphrey discusses the significance and impact of freedom of information and expression on the international human rights framework. Humphrey asserts the right to freedom of information and expression as the benchmark of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a device for further fundamental rights and freedoms. This particular speech can be applied to the Canadian context in the terms of the evolving human rights discourse since the 1940s. The Gouzenko affair marked a critical moment in Canadian human rights history in terms of the balance of individual rights and freedoms and national security. The federal government responded to the Gouzenko affair by passing an Order-in-Council under the War Measures Act, even as the application of this Act was set to expire, and immediately detained eleven people. In the detention process, civil liberties were sacrificed. The affair was a critical moment in Canadian history as it began a conversation about human rights.

A number of the first civil liberties groups in Canada emerged in response to the Gouzenko affair. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, civil liberties associations played a leading role in the parliamentary hearings that followed the Gouzenko affair. The Jewish Labour Committee (JLC) was especially prominent and actively vocal in the human rights movement. As Humphrey discusses in his speech, Article 19 is crucial for democracy and the enjoyment of other rights. Freedom of information and opinion is not only a mechanism for the elaboration and protection further rights but is also a mechanism of power. Freedom of information¬† is essential to democratic governance and can be used to strongly influence society. The Jewish Labour Committee was at the forefront of campaigns for anti-discrimination. Although the JLC’s principal focus was achieving labour rights and anti-discrimination legislation for minority groups, the communication of civil liberties and the free expression of opinions played an essential part in mobilizing action in parliament to acknowledge and protect additional human rights.

The right to freedom of expression and opinion also means the freedom to hold opinions without interference.¬†Humphrey asserts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a cornerstone of international politics. It was created in part to be a “common standard of all peoples in all nations”. Furthermore, Humphrey states that human dignity cannot exist without the protection of human rights. The adoption of the Declaration in 1948 helped to change the content, nature and framework of the international system. The Declaration created a structure of new principles for all nations to comply with. Moreover, the Declaration has built a bridge that connects the state and the citizens, an essential component in all democracies.

Canada’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a crucial move in the development of an established human rights discourse in Canada that not only translated into legislation but also into the integration of society that built on the core values of the Canadian people. As Humphrey accounts in his speech, it is evident that freedom of information and expression is the foundations that supports further fundamental freedoms and rights in Canada and all other nations. Article 19 is not only important in its own right but it is also essential for other human rights to be achieved.

Comments are closed.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.