By Frances Astbury

On 10 December 1948, world leaders congregated at the United Nations General Assembly to affirm the principles which have remained at the very heart of the human rights movement for over six decades.

In adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the international community declared its commitment to the inalienable rights and fundamental freedoms of all human beings and to building a world where all people are “born free and equal in dignity and rights”.

Sixty-five years after the adoption of this momentous document, the international community comes together to celebrate Human Rights Day and reaffirm its commitment to the realisation of fundamental human rights for everyone, regardless of race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, or religion.

Human Rights Day this year has special significance as we also celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration, which has led to massive advancements in the protection of human rights and has been described as “the most significant overarching human rights document produced in the past 40 years.”


The Vienna Declaration is celebrated for emphasising the universality, indivisibility, and interdependence of all human rights — the notion that the realisation of one right can enhance the enjoyment of other rights and that, conversely, the denial of one right can result in the abuse of numerous other rights.

The Vienna Declaration also established the importance of protecting economic social and cultural rights, such as the right to education, health, housing, and to take part in cultural life, as well as civil and political rights, such as the right to life, freedom from slavery and torture, and the right to liberty.

Following Vienna, the past two decades have seen significant advancements in the protection afforded to individuals under international law.

Violations of women’s rights have been explicitly recognised and the elimination of violence against women remains at the forefront of the international human rights agenda. The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, adopted in December 1993, recognises that violence against women violates women’s fundamental human rights and obliges states to work towards the eradication of violence against women, both in the public and private sphere. In 1994, the first Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women was appointed to work towards building a comprehensive and universal approach to the elimination of violence against women.

Huge advancements have also been made in the recognition of the human rights of people with disabilities. The 650 million people who have disabilities worldwide are no longer seen as objects of charity but as people who have a right to participate in all spheres of life on an equal basis with others.

Additionally, the increased protection offered to migrants and their families by the international framework is helping to advance the rights of an estimated 214 million people who currently live outside their country of origin.

In recent years, there have also been major advancements made in protecting the rights of indigenous people, most significantly through the landmark adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.

While these mark some of the greatest achievements in the advancement of human rights in the past 20 years, there are many more. Moreover, the body of international human rights law is constantly evolving and expanding to address emerging human rights issues such as the right to water, sanitation and food.

However, in celebrating the historic human rights instruments which have been adopted over the last six decades and the resultant advancements in the protection of human rights, we must remember to look at these documents not just as a reminder of past achievements, but as living documents which continue to guide our actions.

Many people around the world continue to live without basic liberties and experience fear everyday as a result. In spite of the advancements made by the women’s rights movement in the past two decades, women and girls worldwide continue to be married as children or forced to marry against their will, while others are refused access to education and participation in public life. Trafficking also remains a global crisis, exacerbated by its vast scale and hidden nature.

Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives in the fighting taking place in Syria. Two million refugees have been forced to flee their homes and join the 15.4 million refugees worldwide, with no guarantee of finding shelter, food or water. On top of this, recent reports describe the harassment refugees have often met on entering other countries in search of relief.

Despite huge strides made by the human rights movement in protecting the rights of migrant workers, many migrant workers continue to suffer from adverse working conditions and abuse at the hands of  their employers. This situation is exacerbated as migrant workers often have very limited, or no, access to justice.

While Human Rights Day provides an opportunity to celebrate the evolution and expansion of international law and the human rights movement, it also acts as an opportunity to bring human rights issues to the attention of the international community and promote the importance of continuing the fight to make human rights a reality for everyone. As Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1997-2002, reminds the world, “Human rights are inscribed in the hearts of people; they were there long before lawmakers drafted their first proclamation.”

Frances Astbury is the Publishing Assistant for Law Journals at Oxford University Press, working on the law journals list as support for the Senior Publisher. Frances studied Human Rights Law at SOAS, University of London prior to working for the Press and has previously taken part in projects with Femin Ijtihad to promote the advancement of women’s rights globally.

The 10th of December 2013 marks the 65th Human Rights Day! This year the theme is ’20 Years Working for Your Rights’. The day is marked both by high-level political conferences, meetings and by cultural events and exhibitions dealing with human rights issues. In honour of Human Rights Day this year, Oxford University Press put together a selection of Human Rights-related content ranging from journal and books articles across several disciplines to online products content from Oxford Bibliographies and University Press Scholarship Online.

Oxford University Press is a leading publisher in international law, including the Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law, latest titles from thought leaders in the field, and a wide range of law journals and online products. We publish original works across key areas of study, from humanitarian to international economic to environmental law, developing outstanding resources to support students, scholars, and practitioners worldwide. For the latest news, commentary, and insights follow the International Law team on Twitter@OUPIntLaw.


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