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Why human rights are worth fighting for

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed 70 years ago. What has improved in the meantime, and which challenges still remain.

Christina Iglhaut, 06.12.2018
Darum lohnt sich der Kampf für Menschenrechte
The Basic Law is committed to human rights. © dpa

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The United Nations General Assembly signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948. What progress has been made in the meantime? Which challenges does human rights policy face? These questions are answered by Heiner Bielefeldt, a professor of human rights and human rights policy at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and former UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

Heiner Bielefeldt, a human rights professor in Erlangen
Heiner Bielefeldt, a human rights professor in Erlangen © dpa

Professor Bielefeldt, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not legally binding. Why is it important nonetheless?
Being the “mother document” as far as the international protection of human rights is concerned, it has been cited so frequently in legally binding conventions that it has acquired the force of customary law. One of its advantages is that it is easy to read and understand. On just a few pages, the Declaration outlines the civil, political, economic, social and cultural human rights. Without this holistic perspective, these rights would risk becoming fragmented.

What has improved in terms of German and international human rights policy over the past 70 years?
A lot has improved. Action groups such as the disability rights movement have formulated their grievances as human rights issues, thereby expanding the spectrum of what is regarded as human rights. 70 years ago hardly anyone would have imagined that equal rights for lesbians and gays would become a human right. Successes have also been achieved in the prevention of torture.

Which challenges are faced by human rights policy?
Advances in technology raise new questions for which we need to find appropriate answers in terms of human rights, for example in the area of biotechnology. We are also experiencing a revival of political authoritarianism whose goal is to weaken or destroy human rights norms and institutions. We must make ourselves aware of what is at stake here.


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