Essay on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Analysis of the Rights of Different Demographic Groups
This project will explore the rights of different demographic groups, putting forward arguments for each one, in order to provide a balanced argument by advocating each mentioned demographics’ human rights. I will outline and discuss the human rights issues with children’s rights, transgender rights, religious rights, LGBT+ rights, women’s rights, elderly rights and ethnic minority rights, using mostly sources from government websites and publications, as well as papers, journals, and books written by knowledgeable sources, in order that the arguments presented contain the least bias. If I have deemed a source to be unreliable, I have evaluated the source in the report. Alongside this, I will evaluate what measures have already been put into place and how effective these are, as the more effective measures to prevent human rights atrocities have already been put in place, the less need of additional future help there is, and therefore, this demographic group may not need prioritization.
In this essay, the term rights will be taken to mean being free to not have any form of harm done to them due to the vulnerability that may come with their protected characteristic and being free to openly express this side of themselves without risk. 1
Human rights have long been a topic of contention and one recent debate is as to the prioritization of certain people’s human rights over others. Multiple people’s human rights conflict (for example, the bathroom disputes between women’s rights advocates and the transgender community) and, in these situations, people have begun to wonder whose we should consider being most important. As society advances, there will be more and more issues arising that relate to the debate on freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of expression. This project will explore whose rights should be upheld above all others and how we might decide that.
The first point that must be considered is the origin of human rights. Human rights have been fundamental to our society since the dawn of time. The majority of religions are founded on the belief that, as humanity was created by a supreme being, human life is sacred, and humans deserve some form of protection differing to that of animals.2 Religious texts such as the Bible were revolutionary for their time, dictating that the marginalized in society should have rights and be treated as equals. One of the commandments in Deuteronomy is to ‘be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.’3 (The Holy Bible, 1986). In addition, according to scholars at The Lillian Goldman Law Library in Yale, the Code of Hammurabi contains what we presume to be some of the first human rights laws as they can be dated to even earlier than the Biblical texts of the Pentateuch (around the 18th century BC).4 To have such ancient documents recording basic forms of human rights represents their intrinsic value to humanity.
The human rights trend continues into more recent history. For example, the Magna Carta could be seen as a human rights document because it champions the rights of free men (albeit excluding the rights of peasants and women) as shown by the clause ‘…to no one deny or delay right or justice’5 (Holt, 2015). Another early human rights document is the English Bill of Rights which was created in 1689. Although mainly to prevent the Crown from having utmost power (similar to the Magna Carta), the Bill of Rights is also concerned with justice in terms of criminal trials6 which is one of today’s modern human rights.7 Both sources were used to inspire the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This was a document commissioned by the United Nations to lay out the fundamental rights and freedoms due to all human beings, irrespective of race, gender or any other social parameter. All countries within the United Nations have signed on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; however, they are not bound by law to incorporate all 30 rights into their constitution, which may be a factor in the existence of many human rights atrocities today. Although many, like the United Kingdom, have attempted to legally abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there are still many countries whose laws are contrary to the rights set out by it. For example, capital punishment is still legal in many countries across the planet, such as the United States, which is in direct opposition to the third human right: ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person’ (The United Nations, 1948).8
It is only in recent years that the United Kingdom has taken its own initiative in terms of human rights laws. Although the UK signed up to both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, later, the European Convention of Human Rights, it wasn’t until 1998 that an official UK Human Rights Act came into British legislation. This prevented UK citizens from having to go to the European Court of Human Rights with their legal issues that pertained to human rights concerns and enabled their cases to be dealt with on home soil.9 The UK Humans Rights Act incorporated most of the ‘Convention Rights’ from the European Convention of Human Rights into a document, enabling the rights of UK citizens to be better protected. In more recent years, the Human Rights Act has been revised into the Equality Act, which brings together multiple pieces of anti-discrimination legislation, especially relating to workplace discrimination. However, the problem is far from resolved, as evidenced by the fact that over 94,000 hate crimes were committed between 2017 and 2018 in England and Wales alone.10
As the human rights trend continues into the foreseeable future, we must ask ourselves how we will best protect the rights of those who need them most. However, this is the main dilemma that pertains to the issue of a human rights hierarchy. One European Human Rights center suggests that human rights must, above all, protect ‘those vulnerable to violations of their fundamental human rights (Icelandic Human Rights Centre, n.d.).11 On one hand, this could mean that those who are discriminated against most should be prioritized. On the other hand, this could mean that is whoever has had the least done so far to protect their human rights should be prioritized. From another point of view, it could be that a combination of both factors must be taken into account.
As a part of the research done in order to complete this project, a survey was undertaken, exploring which demographic group the general public believes should have their rights prioritized. I used an online questionnaire service to help me distribute my survey to the greatest number of people through the use of social media. The public was asked to rank these from which they thought was most important to which they thought was least important. When conducting the surveys, I ensured that my participants were aware that they could withdraw at any moment, if the content made them feel uncomfortable, with a clear message at the start of the online questionnaire. Below is a table of rankings, showing the position of each demographic group in relation to the others:
These were chosen as, during my preliminary research, these were the human rights I discovered were most pertinent and talked about in this era in terms of the amount of media coverage given to them.
The first branch of human rights that some might say we should prioritize above all others is the rights of children. Children are some of the most vulnerable in society, according to the World Health Organisation.12 The Child Rights International Network puts this vulnerability down to ‘their young age and dependence on adults.’13 This can lead to their ill-treatment if parameters are not put in place to combat those who seek to take advantage of their vulnerability. However, the problem is a challenging one to handle as most instances of child abuse are never reported. In a study conducted by the NSPCC, they discovered that ‘one in five children have experienced severe maltreatment’ (Radford, L. et al, 2011).14 However, the problem may be much larger than this as many children do not come forwards and admit to having been abused.15
In supplement to these considerations, a second survey, which was undertaken as a part of this project, and was conducted in the same manner as the first, will be taken into account. The survey concerns which issues the general public thought were most severe in terms of making people vulnerable. The public was asked to rank these from which they thought was most important to which they thought was least important. Below is a table of rankings, showing the position of each item in relation to the others:
These factors were chosen as each of these came up in my research as problems at least one of each of these demographic groups faces.
As dependence on others is third in the list and risk of abuse first, the general public evidently would see children as a demographic group at high risk, and this may be the reason why they were placed first by 61% of people in the hierarchy according to the general public.
It must be taken into consideration how society is attempting to combat these issues, as, if more is being done for them, then they are less of a priority. Children have their own personal declaration of rights, fifty-four in total, in order to give them better protection. These rights are monitored by the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner who produces a report every five years on how effectively each country is upholding these rights.16 However, these rights are not monitored as closely as the general human rights which are generally reported on every four years.17
Furthermore, another study was undertaken as a part of my research (and conducted in the same manner as the previous surveys) as to which measures people thought most effective in combatting human rights injustices. The public was asked to rank these from which they thought was most important to which they thought was least important. Below is a table of rankings, showing the position of each item in relation to the others:
Government legislation, the most prominent measure put in place by the government to counter-act the infringement of children’s rights, was placed third which indicates that people believe there are better ways of combatting these issues, such as education (which placed first) and reporting on human rights atrocities (which placed second.)
In addition, the last concluding observation of children’s rights, which was carried out by the committee in 2016,18 highlighted a number of issues with the United Kingdom’s conduct in relation to the welfare of children. The committee stated that, ’Many children in certain groups, including Roma, gypsy and traveler children, children of other ethnic minorities, children with disabilities, children in care, migrant, asylum-seeking and refugee children and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex children, continue to experience discrimination and social stigmatization, including through the media.’ (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2016).19 This all demonstrates that not enough is being done for children and, therefore, they should be made a priority.
Despite these factors, those in favour of children’s rights above all others might say, that children’s rights do not seem to be taken seriously enough by government organizations. Although all countries in the United Nations (with the exception of the United States of America) have ratified the constitution20, which is legally binding21, it is estimated by the International Labour Organization that there are more than two hundred and eighty-one million children working as forced laborers around the world.22 Some might say that the reason why more is not being done to improve children’s quality of life is due to one important factor that governments consider when choosing how to spend their money- voting. Children cannot vote and therefore, in some people’s opinion, governments consider them less of a priority as how they feel does not affect if they get into power or not. This removes children’s rights to have a voice, violating article 12 of the convention which states that ’The child shall…be provided the opportunity to be heard.’ (United Nations, 1990)23 and this shows that governments are not adhering to the guidelines set out by the United Nations, which is, therefore, a reason why they should be prioritized.
The second branch of human rights that some may argue that we should prioritize are the rights of transgender people. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not include the right to change one’s gender, perhaps because, when it was written, transgenderism was not as big a political issue as it is now. In addition, the population of transgender people is much less than that of lesbian or gay populations, at only 0.02%, meaning they have less visibility24, and this may be the reason they were placed last in my survey as to whose human rights should be prioritized, with 0% of people placing them first. This lack of visibility can have a negative outlook on how people perceive them. For instance, Andrew R. Flores from the UCLA School of Law writes, ‘Interpersonal contact with someone who is lesbian or gay also leads to a secondary transfer of positive attitudes,’ (Flores, 2015)25 and as the general public has less contact with transgender people, there is a lower transfer of positive attitudes. Transgender issues are not as public as others and therefore, people may not see their rights as important. However, the truth is far from that. For example, it is estimated that 41% of transgender people attempt suicide at least once in their lifetimes in comparison with only 5% of the rest of the population.26 In addition, almost two-fifths of those transgender people who have already attempted suicide will try two more times.27 These are staggering figures which highlight the need to help those who struggle with their gender identity. Furthermore, the risk of suicide was placed fourth in my survey on what makes people vulnerable, which may identify a great need to prioritize transgender rights.
However, studies conducted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission to inspect the overall welfare of Britain’s human rights do not suggest that much is being done to improve the situation, and this would be a significant reason for prioritization. For example, although transgender discrimination is covered by the 2010 Equalities Act in the UK, around 62% of transgender people reported having negative questions asked of them at mental health and gender clinics.28 On the other hand, the government has proven to have been tackling behavior toward transgender people. For instance, hate crimes motivated by transphobia were recorded to be at just 1.2% in England and Wales29, and schools were provided with a two-million-pound budget to tackle harassment based on gender and sexual orientation in 2015.30 As education was ranked first in my survey, this would prove to be an effective measure, according to the general public, which would mean that this demographic group might not need prioritizing as much, seeing as several effective measures are already in place to assist them.
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