- The right to vote
- Freedom from enslavement
- Presumption of innocence
- Protection against cruelty
- Equal protection of the law
- Protection against arbitrary arrests & detention
- The right to marry: equal rights in marriage
- The right to marry: free & full consent
- Freedom to practise religion
- The right to own property alone
- The right to rest & leisure
- The right to equal pay for equal work
- The right to retain property
- Freedom of opinion and expression
- Freedom of peaceful assembly and association
- The right to an adequate standard of living
- The right to education
- Participation in cultural life
- Credit for intellectual property
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. […] Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
Ever think about your basic human rights? What are they? How did you get them, and how do you keep them? History has shown us that basic human rights can be taken away, endangered, and completely disregarded if they are not upheld by laws, civil action, and in many cases, a fight. While human rights, in dialogue and discourse, can unite people who live on opposite sides of the same planet, the topic can also expose disparities in the liberties afforded to different people under the laws of their nation states. Upon first glance at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, you’ll recognize why protests, marches and vigorous public debate over basic human rights are necessary and more prevalent today than ever before. This article states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” There are 30 human rights and freedoms outlined in the Declaration, announced in 1948 by the then-newly-assembled United Nations, following the atrocities of World War II. This organization included representatives from 50 member states, and was created under the guidance of Eleanor Roosevelt.
We have come far as a society since this declaration was first introduced, especially where voting rights, property ownership, and education are concerned. However, it must be said that the human rights so many people of privilege take for granted, with the assumption that they are gifted to us at birth, have transformed into civil rights that demand civic action. As Roosevelt suggests in the quote above, these “human rights” need to be actioned. Taking action to defend the universal rights and freedoms outlined in this declaration is our civic duty.
Read on to learn about 20 universal rights and freedoms that people had to fight for, including social issues and human rights that activists and communities continue to battle for today.
The right to vote
According to Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.” However, women’s suffrage, also known as a woman’s right to vote, is part of recent rather than ancient history. The women’s suffrage movement saw campaigns in New Zealand starting in 1891, a march to Buckingham Palace in 1914, and protests in front of the White House in 1917; it was met by violent resistance of law enforcement. Black and Indigenous women were excluded from many of the suffrage organizations earlier on, even though their involvement was critical to the success of the movement. Today, most countries around the world allow women the right to vote, including recent additions like Bhutan, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
Freedom from enslavement
Article 4 in the Declaration refers to slavery, stating that: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” Recent history has seen Black, Indigenous and other marginalized communities battle for their own freedom from enslavement. The abolition of slavery in the United States in the 1860s, the liberation of concentration camps across Canada and Europe in the 20th century, and the fact that one in 200 people around the world are impacted by slavery makes it abundantly clear that this human right is not universal and applicable to all. The opposite, in fact, was historically enforced, and continues to be actioned in many parts of the world through human trafficking activities today.
Presumption of innocence
If Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a universally held right, the world would not be mourning the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and the many more victims of police brutality in the past century. The article states: “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.” The United States is among a slew of countries that has failed countless times to presume suspects as innocent before they are proven guilty in a fair and public trial.
Protection against cruelty
“No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” says Article 5 of the Declaration. A recent investigation by Canada’s public broadcaster CBC explores over 250 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women across the nation. While authorities continue to suggest that none of these cases are due to foul play, the CBC has found “evidence in many of the cases that points to suspicious circumstances, unexplained bruises and other factors that suggest further investigation is warranted.” Today, beyond the Canadian borders, protests, marathons, and movements continue to raise awareness for the violence, cruelty and mistreatment of Indigenous people.
Equal protection of the law
Even as Article 7 says that “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) continues to fight against the slew of anti-trans bills that were put forth during the Trump presidency. These bills limit the freedoms and rights of the transgender community, including limiting access to healthcare and leisure activities like athletics.
Protection against arbitrary arrests & detention
While the declaration states that: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile,” this practice, which violates basic human rights, is widely used in the world for political purposes. Today, over 55 countries are banding together to end the practice of arbitrary arrests, detentions or sentencing, according to a press release on the UK government’s website. “This declaration enhances international cooperation and sends a collective show of strength to those countries who carry out this unacceptable practice,” says Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
The right to marry: equal rights in marriage
The next three slides will speak to Article 16, which relates to freedoms and rights in marriage and family relations. The first part states that: “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.” According to the Declaration, this marriage entitles them to equal rights. The UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women reiterates this for policymakers, affirming “the equal rights and obligations of women and men with regard to choice of spouse, parenthood, personal rights and command over property.” This Convention alone has not exactly changed policies overnight across the globe. In South Carolina, divorce didn’t even become legal until 1949, according to the History Collection. And more recently, Human Rights Watch and the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA-Kenya) created this report to call out existing gender-based discrimination in policies for married and divorced women in Kenya.
The rights outlined in Article 16 of the Declaration don’t seem to include or represent the populations of same-sex couples wishing to marry, nor does it suggest that these couples have equal rights or the right to found a family. While the UN continues to make amendments and expand the definition of its rights, only 29 countries in the world allow same-sex marriage today, according to this article. LGBTQ2S+ advocacy groups and social activists continue to fight for the right to marry.
The right to marry: free & full consent
The long-winded Article 16 also recommends that “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” The language seems to protect each person who has entered into a consensual marital relationship. While it is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to get married in most countries around the world, child marriage is a practice activists continue to combat. Especially during the pandemic, some parents in India who lost their livelihood resorted to marrying off their underage daughters, according to NPR. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals aims to end child marriage across the globe by 2030.
Freedom to practise religion
Article 18 declares: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion […] and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” In Canada, freedom of religion is protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; however, this seems not to be the case in other countries. Protests erupted in France when the government banned face-covering Muslim veils in public places, which came with a US$185 fine for those who disobeyed this law.
The right to own property alone
In Article 17, “Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.” However, while the women’s rights movement has been successful at securing land ownership liberties for women in some regions, this has not been the experience of a group of women in Liberia. In 2018, Liberian women activists protested the country’s Land Rights Act, urging President George Weah to ensure that legislation removes barriers for women who seek to own land, and protects the rights of women and rural Liberians from privatization, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
The right to rest & leisure
Article 24 states that: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” Work-life balance has always been a contentious issue in the corporate world. Some feel that it is an elusive, unattainable idea that we will continue to fight for in our working lives. The need for rest and leisure has never been more critical to our collective mental health than in the heat of a global health crisis. Women, in particular, experienced the regressive and career-crushing impact more than their male counterparts, as their livelihood, mental health, and any semblance of work-life balance were endangered.
The right to equal pay for equal work
In Article 23 of the Declaration: “Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.” The gender pay gap is easily one of the leading issues that activists, advocates, and professional women worldwide contend with today. Women’s economic empowerment is key to progress and the equitable distribution of prosperity in the world; however, while endorsed by many, equal pay continues to be a human right that has not been successfully put into practice. Women continue to battle for equal pay for equal work, and the gap seems to widen for women of colour, who earn 21% less than white women, and 38% less than white men, according to Lean In Circles.
The right to retain property
In Article 17, we read that: “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” So, what does it mean to own land if someone can come over and easily take it? Wars have been fought over land ownership, and the scathing reality is that Indigenous communities in many nations have been deprived of their property, rights and basic needs over the years. As an example, most recently, the right to their land has sparked nationwide protests, and global demonstrations of solidarity, due to the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in Western Canada. “Some 28% of the pipeline route passes through Wet’suwet’en lands,” says the BBC. Not only is this pipeline threatening the land that the First Nations bands in this area rightfully own, it endangers the environment in significant ways. While land ownership laws have evolved over the years to include marginalized communities, they continue to miss the mark when put into practice, leaving Black and Indigenous communities to continue fighting to keep their land.
Freedom of opinion and expression
When a rapper in Spain was arrested for tweets and a song, it sparked protests causing the country to reform its existing free speech laws. The matter brought into question article 19 in the UN’s Declaration which states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” Citizens of countries that have the right to free expression fully protected by the constitution can often take this for granted. In contrast, residents of countries where journalists, politicians, celebrities, and regular citizens have been jailed for speaking up about issues that matter to them, especially due to “gag laws,” may live in fear of repercussions for exercising their human right to freedom of expression.
Freedom of peaceful assembly and association
Article 20 in the Declaration refers to the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, a basic right to collectively air grievances and gather around common ideas and beliefs. Many assume this right is protected by democratic governments, when in fact, that hasn’t always been the case. The UN requests that nations commit to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in alignment with the Declaration of Human Rights. This Covenant was ratified by 173 countries, and yet, in the case of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, the protests against the increase in domestic violence and femicides in Turkey during the pandemic, and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, excessive force was used by law enforcement to prevent protesters from exercising their basic human right to peaceful assembly.
The right to an adequate standard of living
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services,” says Article 25 of the UN’s Declaration. This basic human right is probably one of the freedoms that presents the most issues when it comes to application and access. Trans youth have trouble accessing the healthcare they need, marginalized communities are facing exponential barriers when applying for home loans and mortgages, and World Vision reports that over 821 million people in the world are hungry. The Make Poverty History campaign in the UK and Ireland led to a global movement urging governments to provide relief to countries experiencing severe hunger and inadequate living conditions. In 2020, 15 years after this campaign started, The Courier reported that “there have been encouraging trends with global ‘extreme poverty’ at its lowest ever recorded level.” However, the main concern today is that the pandemic may have reversed this progress, as the poorest nations continue to be ill-equipped to manage this global health crisis due to their underdeveloped healthcare infrastructure.
The right to education
The education activist Malala Yousafzai is one of the women leaders who has fought for, and succeeded, in upholding Article 26 of the Declaration, which states: “Everyone has the right to education.” With 130 million girls out of school across the globe, Malala’s story is incredibly inspiring, and demonstrates the need to take civic action to uphold human rights in situations where the government and law enforcement are not adequately doing so. When the Taliban took control of Malala’s town in Pakistan’s Swat Valley in 2008, they declared that girls could not attend school. When she spoke out publicly about the need for girls to seek education, the Taliban attempted to silence her. This did not stop her. The Malala Fund she started, which earned her a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, advocates holding leaders accountable to resources and policies that support the education of girls at the secondary level.
Participation in cultural life
Article 27 states that: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” While the article seems ambiguous as to what constitutes the enjoyment of the arts and the sharing of scientific advancement and its benefits, it remains a fact that women continue to fight for recognition for their involvement in the STEAM fields and that women’s involvement in the public space has only been afforded by law in the last century. Women were prohibited from entering the Olympics until the 1900 Games in Paris. As a woman, being seen in public without a chaperone was unheard of in the 19th century.
Credit for intellectual property
The second part of Article 27 could be interpreted as referring to overall credit for intellectual property, stating that: “Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.” Over history, women have had to use pen names to publish their literary works and have made scientific discoveries that have been wrongly credited to men. Users on LinkedIn and Instagram continue to advocate for the protection of intellectual property, and for the visibility of artists, creatives, and scientists from marginalized groups who have been completely left out of history books. The efforts and activities of organizations like Advancing Women Artists, National Society of Black Engineers, and Society for Canadian Women in Science & Technology help ensure that the voices, work and involvement of marginalized communities in the STEAM fields are recognized, supported and valued.