Renewing Rights in Times of Transition:

70 Years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

This year we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). At the time of its adoption, none of the drafters nor the UN General Assembly could have calculated the movement, norms, and practice relating to human rights for people across the globe that would grow from the document. Across every country, grassroots campaigners and civil society work to combat inequality across a host of civil, political, social, economic and cultural fronts. All 193 Members States of the United Nations are examined periodically with reference to the UDHR. Nine core human rights treaties and a number of further optional protocols have been agreed to give legal force to the promises set out in the UDHR. Governance of the international human rights system is overseen by treaty bodies, national human rights institutions, and other UN bodies. Each of these aspects of the grand human rights system has met unrelenting challenges and the 70th anniversary of the UDHR presents a perfect opportunity to take stock of how far we have come and how far we have to go.

At the same time, human rights is a constantly expanding field with new issues for discussion and debate arising daily. The AHRI conference is placed ideally to provide a platform for discussion, debate and advanced-thinking about the both the particular challenge which human rights now face, and innovative ways in which they may be addressed.  In 2018 we would like to build on previous AHRI conference themes and apply them to the current context.

Human rights appear peculiarly under threat in a global, structural way.  Transitions to democracy in which rights were seen as central, have not tracked smoothly forward, but suffer ‘democratic regression’; western liberal states who long promoted rights now appear to be at a new cross-roads in which populism goes hand-in-hand with dismantling rights commitments.  Rising new powers increasingly seek to play a part in global politics, but with questions about the normative commitments underlying their normative interventions.  At the same time, there has been talk of revisiting the UDHR and the UN mechanisms to make them more relevant – an enterprise that risks retreat even as it tries to ensure advancement. Human rights discourse and the treaty machinery also come up against a different form of challenge in the form of new ‘regimes’ such as responsibility to protect, or the women, peace and security agenda, which can undermine tried and tested forms of human rights law and mechanisms.   Those at the heart of the UN Institutions to protect human rights express disillusionment.

Against this backdrop, we take the 70th anniversary of the UDHR as a starting point, and aim to address key aspects and themes in the field which connect to our turbulent times and promise to promote lively engagement and discussion.