A Look at Human Rights Day 2012

What is Human Rights Day?

Human Rights Day began in 1950 to commemorate the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on December 10, 1948.  Although the UDHR is not legally binding on UN Member States, it is the origin for binding human rights instruments that followed, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, among many others.

Each year since 1950, Human Rights Day has become an opportunity to raise awareness and spur progress by highlighing particular rights or issues.  Past themes adopted by the UN have included “Human rights defenders who act to end discrimination” (2010) andDignity and justice for all of us” (2008).

Inclusion and the Right to Participate in Public Life

Article 25 of the ICCPR is the source of this year’s theme for Human Rights Day.  Article 25 provides that “[e]very citizen shall have the right and the opportunity … [t]o take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives.” This year’s theme also derives from the essence of UDHR Articles 19-21, which address the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and civic participation.

The Human Rights Committee – the treaty body primarily responsible for interpreting the ICCPR – has further explained Article 25’s meaning through a general comment stressing that Article 25 does not allow any discrimination in public participation “on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”  The Committee also noted that “public affairs” includes “all aspects of public administration, and the formulation and implementation of policy at international, national, regional and local levels.”

Under this year’s theme, Human Rights Day calls attention to the general need for all countries to respect and promote active public citizens who help shape their local, national, and international communities. As the UN acknowledges, these rights are particularly relevant in light of the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, and other instances in recent years where citizens have sought greater participation in their governments.

Human Rights Day Events

Over the next week and on Human Rights Day, the UN will host a number of events at various locations around the world.  At the UN Headquarters in New York, Human Rights Day related activities include a UN Student Conference on Human Rights from December 5-7.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) will be hosting an event on December 10 at the UN grounds in Geneva that includes Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi as the keynote speaker and a panel with High Commissioner Navi Pillay. Also, as a means of reaching a wider audience online, the High Commissioner will host a live video-chat session on December 10 through Google+ Hangout.  This video-chat will further be available online through YouTube.

Concurrently at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu will be awarded the 2012 UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights.

For further details and more Human Rights Day events around the world, see the OHCHR website and UN Information Center website.