Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

To mark Human Rights Day, we invited Samaritans Board member, author of Outspoken, passionate advocate and Anglican priest, The Venerable Rod Bower, to share his thoughts here.

On 10th December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in Paris. We now commemorate the 70th anniversary of this inspiring and important document.

There are two notable local connections to this document. Dr. H.V. Evatt having been elected President of the General Assembly of the United Nations, the only Australian to have ever held the position, presided over the adoption and proclamation of the Declaration. ‘Doc’ Evatt was born in the Bank Hotel in East Maitland.

Evatt took with him to Paris the Right Reverend Ernest Burgmann Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, an outspoken advocate for social justice and human rights. Burgmann was born in Upper Lansdowne, just north of Taree, and was originally a priest of the Diocese of Newcastle. Among a number of parishes, he served in Gosford, which is part of the reason I find him a particular inspiration.

However, 70 years after the proclamation of the declaration, the struggle for human rights continues and will continue until all humanity lives in the same civic universe.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr, in his letter from Birmingham Jail wrote: ‘I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice’.

Those who are more devoted to order than to justice inevitably create parallel civic universes. The creators of worlds are the privileged and the powerful, and needless to say their inventions benefit them and disadvantage others. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a proclamation of hope that there could be one civic universe for all humanity.

We continue to struggle in the hope of the realisation of that possibility. In the hope of a world where order does not triumph over justice, but the two dance together in the beautiful choreography of radical inclusivity.

Tragically, there are those who continue to live in the parallel civic universe of exclusion, marginalisation, and oppression. Refugees, First Nations people, the LGBT community, those who live with disabilities and the unemployed just to name a few. Not only is there a gender pay gap, but two women per week are murdered by an existing or former partner, proving that even when the legislative universe is inclusive there remains a cultural domination system that denies rights to some that are afforded to others.

The Samaritans Foundation is ultimately committed to all humanity living in one radically inclusive civic and cultural universe. As a member of the Board of Samaritans I join with other directors in coming to the table in the spirit of Evatt and Burgmann, the spirit of universal human rights.

While these two ‘local’ men were no doubt significant contributors to the declaration, it was a woman whose passion for human rights brought it to birth. It was the extraordinary leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt that saw the declaration come into being; her incredible ability to embrace both the universal and the particular is what makes this document so radically inclusive.

While Samaritans continues to participate in the universal struggle for human rights, we recognise the truth of Eleanor Roosevelt’s words when she recognised: “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.”

The Venerable Rod Bower

Archdeacon of Justice Ministries and Chaplaincy.

Samaritans Board Member.