The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 75 – can it handle the challenges of the 21st century?

BLOG: To mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Dr Leah Utyasheva examines the growing influence of corporate powers and their impact on global human rights.

Image banner celebrating the 75 anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

With text - 'Universal Declaration of Human Rights - it's our declaration'

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”

Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

This 10 December marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – a date often called the birthday of the international human rights movement.

Of course, the ideas of dignity, freedom, and justice have existed among humankind throughout history, but these ideas were only translated into legal obligations in the 20th century. Many of the human rights treaties and standards that have been developed since 1948 are all based on humanistic principles of the Declaration.

75 years after its adoption, the UDHR does not feel outdated, its articles are still inspiring and relevant. In the decades since its adoption, many achievements in the field of human rights have taken place. This includes the development of rigorous labour laws; the recognition of the right to health, including social determinants of health necessary to fully enjoy this right; and the recent recognition of the right to clean, safe and sustainable environment.

However, there are also new challenges in the world. One of them is the growing power of third parties. Businesses can now significantly, and negatively, affect the enjoyment of human rights.

Corporate powers and human rights

Business activities can pose major risks to human rights, health, and the environment. They are contributors to many urgent challenges of today, including a rise in inequality and the triple crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.

In the world of globalised economy, states – who are usually considered to be the main duty bearers to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights – are often less powerful than corporations.

Businesses can affect human rights not only through the direct impact on human rights, but also through commercial determinants of health. These are defined as the strategies and approaches used by the private sector to promote products and choices that are detrimental to health.

Industries seek to increase their consumer base and influence consumers’ choices in favour of their products by shaping environments, tastes, and knowledge. These choices may harm health and well-being of consumers.

For example, agrochemicals, particularly pesticides, may pose inherent risk of harm to human health and the environment. Multiple studies show adverse effects of pesticides on people health and lives, including poisoning, suicides, harm to the environment and wildlife.

Commercial determinants of health related to pesticide industry could be direct (acute poisoning and long-term exposure from use of toxic chemicals and pesticides, negative health effects from pesticide residues in food, water, air, suicide and self-harm resulting from intentional pesticide ingestion), and indirect (unhealthy labour conditions, toxic poisoned environments, low yields due to pesticide resistance).

In this situation, the international community and governments need new rules to call corporations to account for the negative impact of their activities on human rights and health.

Preventing human rights violations

In 2011, the United Nations adopted the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP) – a voluntary set of principles that provide recommendations on responsible business activities that respect human rights. They became the standard to prevent, address and remedy human rights violations connected with business activities.

To further the work on human rights responsibility of corporations, the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights is now working to develop a binding treaty on business and human rights and corporate responsibility. It will include industry regulation to prevent undue interference in policymaking; and due diligence aimed at identifying, preventing, and mitigating potential risks to human rights.

Like all human rights legislation, this treaty will include the empowerment of affected communities to voice their concerns and participate in decision-making. It will put human beings and their rights as the central goal of regulation.

The Working Group underlines that, while the private sector has a right to participate in policymaking, such participation should be conducted transparently and responsibly. The resultant policymaking should be consistent with public interest and respect for human rights – “especially where the modes of engagement utilized and the surrounding regulatory contexts preclude adequate oversight”.

Taking responsibility

The responsibility to prevent undue influence of corporations mainly lies with the state. States must impose rules and restrictions on political activity of corporations to prevent human rights violations.

Industry, however, also have responsibility to act responsibly. Responsible business behaviour must be based on the values of integrity, legitimacy, accountability, consistency, and transparency.

The 75th anniversary of UDHR is a chance to reflect on the new challenges to human rights and health brought in by the 21st century. For the principles of freedom, dignity, and justice to endure, we must address the influence of corporate power and ensure that affected communities remain at the heart of all decision-making.

Dr Leah Utyasheva

Dr Leah Utyasheva
Policy Director, Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention (CPSP)

Leah Utyasheva has a background in law and human rights and has worked as a researcher and policy and law reform specialist. Her work at CPSP focuses on human rights-based approaches to pesticide management, human rights aspects of HHP use in low- and middle-income countries, reduction of pesticide suicide through regulation, policy initiatives to improve suicide reporting, and decriminalization of suicide attempt.

Useful links

BLOG: What role do commercial interests play in suicide prevention?

BLOG: Applying a commercial determinants perspective to suicide and self-harm prevention

BLOG: Can we really blame farmers for pesticide ‘misuse’?

PUBLICATION: Conceptualising the commercial determinants of suicide: broadening the lens on suicide and self-harm prevention