70 Years of Human Rights. Indivisible. Inalienable. Universal.


Seventy years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted. It proclaims the dignity of the human person and equal rights for women and men across the globe – this is the fundamental normative statement which, since the Second World War, has become the starting point for a system of safeguarding political, civic, economic and cultural (human) rights. Potentially, a reason to celebrate. And yet, human rights are coming under enormous pressure. ➢ Read more in our Online-Dossier on Human Rights!

Die Erklärung der Menschenrechte der Vereinten Nationen

The Heinrich Böll Stiftung is working with partners throughout the world towards making democracy, dignity and freedom a reality, as well as defending, and, wherever possible, further developing human rights. The triad of human rights – democracy – ecological sustainability is the foundation of our activities.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” (Article 1 of the UDHR)

This was the unmistakeable and powerful message conveyed when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 70 years ago. Article 1 is the fundamental statement and normative profile of the UDHR. The Declaration centres on people, their inalienable dignity and their rights. Human rights that preserve human dignity and are the prerequisite for a free, self-determined life should be bestowed on every human person at all times and everywhere with no ifs or buts, and without restriction. This means that, regardless of who the person is, where they come from, where they live, what they look like, what they believe, how they love, and, regardless of what they have done: every person is of equal value and has the same rights, which are indivisible, inalienable and universal. Seventy years later, this remains a utopia.

Human rights for all – still a utopia

Today, on the 70th anniversary of the UDHR, we are witnessing how human rights as a large-scale shared humanitarian utopia are scorned and ridiculed. The global consensus, i.e. the avowal of the indivisibility of human rights – which was once again renewed at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 – is being eroded and is crumbling. It is not just that more people than ever since the Second World War are fleeing from the violence and injustice committed by their own governments, but the numbers of detained, persecuted and murdered activists, human rights defenders and journalists are also steadily rising. The fundamental principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – its universality and indivisibility – are fundamentally being challenged today to a degree which would have appeared barely imaginable ten years ago. The USA withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2018; this move is symptomatic of how governments across the globe place state sovereignty before everything else, relativise universal values, and – using racist and völkisch arguments – render the protection of minorities as well as religious freedom obsolete. We are also witnessing a new self-assurance among old, authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia. Together with new, authoritarian, right-wing populist and illiberal regimes – such as Turkey or Hungary – they are attacking the multilateral human rights architecture that has been developed over numerous decades as well as its normative principles. The political rollback is also enveloping the continent of Latin America, which, following the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil, has reached a new pinnacle. In him, a president has come to power who glorifies violence, is contemptuous of women and advocates military dictatorship and torture.

What all these rulers have in common is their veritable opposition to the fundamental principles of the rule of law as well as an independent justice system and press, and a vigorous and critical civil society. At the same time, authoritarian regimes, populist political parties and illiberal democracies stoke völkisch-national resentments and the illusion of an ethno-cultural understanding of a homogenous national identity. Such resentments latch on to groups within the population that are socially, economically and culturally marginalised (or see themselves that way), who feel left behind with an underlying sense of uncertainty or real insecurity, as well as violence by the political, economic and cultural elites. Stirring up hatred against the elites is one of the fundamental driving forces of populist and far-right actors.

Women’s rights are human rights

Reversing emancipatory and cultural achievements – this is what fires up anti-liberal forces worldwide: in the name of tradition, of “shared völkisch values” and of religion, “traditional values” are being reclaimed with which human rights violations are justified, people of differing beliefs are persecuted, women discriminated against and people of a non-conforming sexual orientation criminalised. Close to half of the world’s population lives in countries where people of a non-conforming sexual orientation and gender identity can be criminally prosecuted. In some states, such as Iran, Yemen, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan, they even face the threat of the death penalty. Ultra-conservative NGOs, religious and cross-national organisations cunningly use the linkage between religion, culture and tradition and rhetorically connect it by referring to national sovereignty in support of their attacks on women’s rights, reproductive rights and sexual self-determination. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) counts among the success stories in the history of human rights, as it expressly recognises women’s rights as human rights. This anti-discrimination convention of 1979 illustrates what momentum the multi-lateral human rights system once had and is, above all, an expression of the struggle that women have undertaken in order to gain recognition, under international law, for particular regulations and the need for women to be protected. CEDAW continues to be used worldwide as a key point of reference to remind states of their duties to protect and implement, even though numerous regimes are increasingly flouting such duties. The Heinrich Böll Stiftung has a broad range of partners and supports women’s and LGBTI organisations worldwide that are advocating political, social, cultural and reproductive rights, dismantling legal and social discrimination and driving de-criminalisation. In one recent case in point, a broad-based alliance, including partners of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, was able to secure the legalisation of homosexuality through the Supreme Court in India.

Power and profit vs. human rights

Defending power as well as political and economic privileges at any price is one of the main reasons for the erosion of democratic and human rights principles. Attacks on environmental/human rights activists have seen a resurgence in intensity in recent years. Rain forests are being destroyed; local communities dispelled in the name of agroindustrial and infrastructure projects; clothing manufactured for a pittance. The new political right is also advancing this development agenda. Trump is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement; Bolsonaro is looking to clear-cut the Amazon rainforest; new coal-fired power plants are being constructed in Eastern Europe, more often than not with the justification that the people need prosperity rather than economic, social or cultural human rights. As a result, individual human rights are not just pitted against each other and stratified. Human rights and dignity are by no means the underlying motives for taking action; instead it is the pursuit of political power and economic profit. No matter how much the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and, even more so, economic and social pacts address every category and dimension of human rights: one of the biggest challenges remains ensuring that human rights are implemented and respected with binding effect, by governments as well as private actors and business enterprises.

Hunting down a critical and emancipatory civil society

The more political and economic actors ignoring human rights gain ground, the more important it becomes to defend the validity of human rights in terms of their universality and indivisibility and to lay claim to these rights – every single day!

Fortunately, there are people and organisations across the globe that do so untiringly and vehemently and strive to defend human dignity. Our partners, for example. To be aided in their committed cause, civil society actors need fundamental basic and human rights, such as freedom of opinion, of the press, of assembly, and of organisation. Today, they are being suppressed and punished through repressive acts in ways that are barely imaginable (shrinking spaces).

Critical civil society representatives and those campaigning for emancipation, as well as NGOs expressing criticism of governments are the target of a plethora of legal, administrative and repressive measures ranging from bureaucratic stipulations and censorship to smear and defamation campaigns, even going as far as open threats, violence and murder. Governments also have their sights on foreign organisations that support local partners. In practice and via so-called NGO legislation, licences are being revoked, visas and registrations rejected, offices closed, accounts frozen, organisations discredited as “foreign agents”, and staff threatened, to name but a few.

Our partners are fighting for human rights

Such actions are hitting the Heinrich Böll Stiftung particularly hard, with its broad-based international network comprising critical intellectuals, journalists, lawyers, environmental, women*, LGBTI and human rights activists. We support people who know their rights, fight to obtain and to defend them through peaceful and democratic means, who stand up to despotism and suppression, who press for the right to maintain their ecological and economic livelihoods, to social and environmental standards, and to their human rights.

The Foundation supports, among other things, local communities in Argentina, Zimbabwe and Kenya, whose livelihoods are under threat from major projects, such as the mining of minerals, lithium and diamonds, or large-scale infrastructure projects. Here, the Foundation is also focused on upholding – including through legal remedies – international treaties and agreements such as ILO Convention No. 169, which aims in particular to safeguard the rights of indigenous peoples, and to further develop social and political parameters in practice.

Since they seek to stem the tide of exploitation, environmental activists, defenders of human rights, and trade unions are increasingly persecuted, threatened and murdered by state-sponsored and private perpetrators of violence. People are protesting large-scale industrial projects, such as ports and dams, or the development and mining of coal, gas sources or other resources. Fervent protest from the local population is in particular directed at large-scale agroindustrial projects; they are defending their livelihoods from land grabbing. The Global Witness organisation and The Guardian newspaper have recorded that 197 environmental activists were murdered in 2017, the majority of them in the context of agroindustrial or extractivism projects (oil, gas, coal, minerals, agroindustry). In many countries, political and economic interests go hand in hand. Parliamentary and public sector monitoring of e.g. infrastructure projects and their financing through banks or the state, or even trade union organising campaigns: undesirable. Protests against corruption and land seizures are violently parried. Silencing critical voices; this is not a new trend. What is new, however, is the scale on which this is done and that it is not only found in autocratic states. With the arrival of Donald Trump, Victor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro and Jarendra Modi (India), this trend has now also descended on numerous democratic and so-called illiberal democracies.

Human rights and democracy go hand in hand

Determining where there is political room for manoeuvre for greater democracy and human rights in a complicated environment is one of the core activities of a political foundation. This requires a sure instinct and a responsible assessment as to whether the safety of cooperation partners and staff is ensured. At times, this means taking the appropriate measures and withdrawing from a country if the room for manoeuvre is gravitating towards zero. More than anything, however, we want to stay in order to support courageous people and help everyone to try and safeguard human rights and recapture spaces for action.

After all: human rights and human dignity must form the basis of every democratic, political order and be the guiding mission for every political and economic activity. Only by doing so can a self-determined, free life be realised in dignity for all. Political participation, the right to organise, the right to no violence, no hunger or thirst, no suppression, the freedom to choose a political or religious disposition – these are all human rights, which were anchored 70 years ago in the UDHR. Without these, there can be no democracy worthy of the name.

From utopia to reality

Universal – inalienable – indivisible – human dignity and freedom for every human person – this remains our goal. We share this with so many courageous people throughout the world. After all, human rights are not “western”; they have never been a “project” of white elites; they are universal. This is also reflected in our daily work with our global partner network.

Human rights, democracy and ecological sustainability – this is the triad that characterises the work of our Foundation. Our strength lies in thinking of social, gender-political and ecological matters from a human rights perspective, always closely linked to questions of democracy. Issues, such as access to land, water and resources, or reproductive rights, are always a matter of human rights and democratic participation. Democratic parliaments and civil society involvement, the freedom of the press, the division of powers, and the rule of law are essential for democracy and a pre-requisite for guaranteed human rights. We see ourselves as a fosterer of these democratic principles and support people who advocate democratic and non-violent means in order to secure their rights.

It is not sufficient for civil society alone to commemorate human rights as a civic milestone. They should serve as a reference and be a principle of government action in every department and in all multi-lateral negotiations. No matter how much the Universal Declaration on Human Rights illustrates that it safeguards people and their dignity, also and in particular, from state despotism, it is up to the states to safeguard, protect and advance human rights. The latter is something we must never forget, irrespective of any manner in which human rights are defended, because technological and social developments – such as digitisation or ageing societies – repeatedly present the codification and implementation of human rights with new challenges. How do we preserve human dignity and people’s self-determination in their advanced years and in nursing homes? How do we respect human rights online? How do we deal with surveillance, hate speech and sexualised violence on the web?

Civic, political, social, cultural and economic human rights belong together; they are interdependent. Not pitting them against each other, not stratifying them and not subjugating them to other interests: that is our understanding of a human-rights-based democratic, economic, social and cultural policy. Human rights are universal, indivisible and inalienable. This is what the Heinrich Böll Stiftung stands for.