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2008: Celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Introduction

Sixty years ago, nations of the world joined together in recognizing that all peoples, in all nations, are free and equal regardless of race, religion, economic status, age, gender or other personal characteristics. Through the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the United Nations brought into being the first international document recognizing human rights as the foundation of peace, justice and freedom in the world.

The Universal Declaration outlines 30 basic rights essential for all human beings to achieve their full potential and to live a life free of fear and want. It was a unique approach that developed from the world saying 'never again' to the horrific events of World War Two, a war that brought a scale of atrocity never previously witnessed. The global death count is estimated to have been more than 50 million. War crimes were widespread: from the infamous Holocaust in which Nazi Germany sought to eliminate 'undesirables' such as Jews, Poles, Slavs, Roma, Sinti, the mentally and physically disabled, homosexuals and other persons, to the use of sex slaves, otherwise known as 'comfort women', by Japanese soldiers. Labour camps were used throughout the world and, disturbingly, World War Two brought the first testing of biological warfare by Japan and the use of atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima by the United States of America. Read more...

Creating a Sustainable World

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The Universal Declaration states that all people have the right to life, liberty and security of person (Article 3) as well as the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family (Article 25). These two fundamental rights are grounded in the reality that all people need a supportive environment for a life of well-being. Article 25 for example highlights the right to food and nutrition, but to sustain these rights we need arable land to produce food. We also need clean water and air. Yet, with climate change and our ongoing reliance on non-renewable resources, we threaten the continued existence of these basic resources, which are essential to life - a life that is secure, free, and healthy.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) defines Sustainable Development as development that ensures that the resources and the environment today do not restrict their use by future generations. The continual destruction of the environment by such practices as deforestation, water contamination, and air pollution compromises not only our access to an environment that ensures well-being, but also that of future generations. It is impossible to separate the well-being of humanity from the well-being of the earth. The Declaration, through these two articles (3 and 25), places importance on the protection of the earth and its resources.

In Canada, one of the critical drivers of our economy is oil exploration and production. Critics of the oil industry contend that not enough measures have been taken to minimize the impact of this industry on environment and health. The oil industry uses massive amounts of water for processing, impacts land use and arability, and contributes to high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. To produce one cubic metre of oil from Alberta's oil sands requires 2-4.5 cubic metres of water. Every barrel of this oil emits over 80 kg of greenhouse gases. Global increases in consumption of oil and gas continue to propel the unsustainable practices associated with this industry.

Access to safe, drinkable water is also a critical issue relating to sustainable development. All living things depend on water; globally, however, the quality and access of water continues to deteriorate. The United Nations estimates that 1.1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water and 2.4 billion do not have adequate sanitation. In Canada, our water resources are becoming more precarious and are inaccessible to some citizens. Some First Nations members on reserves, do not have clean water, for example. There is growing concern about the depletion of our water resources and the impact this may have on future generations.

There are many ways in which our environment is being threatened. The clear-cutting of forests in British Columbia, for example, is part of a global trend towards deforestation. The annual rate of deforestation in the world is 0.2% or 9,391,000 hectares per year. Ultimately this affects the quality of our air and land resources.

We have the right to food. We have the right to water. We have the right to a home in which to raise our families and live our lives. We need these things; they are a necessary foundation for all other rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration. Yet, global environmental crises are now putting these very rights at risk. As countless reports have warned, the impacts of climate change are already falling disproportionately on the poorest and most vulnerable in our global society, particularly children--those whose rights are already the most at risk. In Canada, some Aboriginal people, whose way of life is still intrinsically tied to the land, bear the impacts of environmental degradation. Industrial and resource development near their communities contribute to polluted air, water and soil; a loss of quality or availability of traditional foods and medicines; and an erosion of their cultural traditions.

Basic human rights--to clean water, to traditional ways of life, to peace and security--are often threatened by the very practices that are fuelling climate change. Unless we can develop sustainably, we will find ourselves without those things we need most, without our human rights. As individuals, we can make choices to support a healthy environment--consider car pooling, re-use your own mug for coffee, support an environmental campaign, or just take the time to learn more. Each individual's actions can add up to big change.

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Related International Human Rights Documents