Julian Braithwaite

Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN and other international organisations in Geneva

Part of FCDO Human Rights UK in Switzerland

21st September 2015 Geneva, Switzerland

Are Human Rights Universal?

In December 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Referring to a covenant that was by then already well over 700 years old, Eleanor Roosevelt welcomed the Declaration by saying she hoped it would become a Magna Carta for the world.

Many today still argue that these fundamental rights enshrined in the UN are simply the expression of Western culture, and not applicable to all.  We will hear that again over coming days in the UN Human Rights Council.

I’m proud that the Universal Declaration draws upon the struggle to establish the rule of law and curb absolute power in England. It also takes inspiration from the American Declaration of Independence, and the liberties won from empire; and from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and the birth of republican government in France.

But when I hear that individual political and civil rights are not for everyone, I think of Nelson Mandela’s sacrifice to win those rights for all the citizens of South Africa, not just for those of European descent.

When I hear that equality is something that only women in the West want, I think of Malala, campaigning fearlessly for the rights of girls to be educated, refusing to be silenced by the men who tried to kill her.

And when I hear that these universal rights are not compatible with Islam, I think of the millions of muslim refugees prepared to risk everything so their children can grow up enjoying those liberties.

There is something universal about the desire to be treated equally.  To be afforded the same dignity and rights as our fellow human beings.  The history of all human culture is the struggle to enshrine those principles in our societies.  To negotiate the common rules by which we live so that they promote dignity and rights for all, not just for a privileged few.

Where we in the West need to be humble is in recognising that our own struggle is not over.  It was perfectly normal in my mother’s generation that she should have to resign her job when she got married.  Switzerland, the seat of the Human Rights Council, only gave women the vote in 1971.  In the United States, same-sex marriage only became legal nationwide in June of this year.  Racism and prejudice still blight our societies, and undermine the dignity and rights of many of our citizens.

Tolerance is one of the greatest attributes of any society.  But even the West is struggling to accommodate the choices that individuals in our increasingly diverse societies wish to make, and to reconcile those with the continued tolerance and social cohesion they also depend on.

But to admit that we are at different stages on the journey, or indeed that there are different starting points, does not mean that there is not a common destination.  We must do more for those who are genuinely seeking help to get there.  And we must remain firm in the face of those who still argue that we are not all born equal in rights and dignity.

About Julian Braithwaite

Julian Braithwaite was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other international organisations in Geneva in April 2015. Julian was born in Rome, and has…

Julian Braithwaite was appointed Her Majesty’s
Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other international organisations in Geneva in April 2015.

Julian was born in Rome, and has degrees from Cambridge and Harvard universities, where he studied biochemistry, history and international relations.

He is married to Biljana Braithwaite and they have
two daughters, Anya (born 2000) and Katya (born 2004). He spent much of his career dealing with the crises in the former Yugoslavia and goes to Montenegro every summer.

Julian posts on the United Nations and the issues around globalisation, including human rights, the internet, global health, humanitarian crises and arms control.