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Protecting rights activists - 07/10/2008

The declaration of human rights rolled up and held with a red ribbon

EU celebrates UN declaration of human rights with tribute to dissidents.

Tunisian journalist Souhayr Belhassen has campaigned in defence of human rights for more than three decades. Over the years she has been repeatedly attacked by plainclothes police officers. Her phones have been tapped, her mail intercepted, her weekly magazine shut down. At one point she was even banished from her country.

Horrible as it sounds, her story isn’t unusual. Dissidents around the world often go to great risk to expose rights abuses. In many cases, they pay with their lives.

To mark the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights, the EU is paying tribute to human rights defenders around the world. Belhassen, now president of the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, is among 27 prominent rights activists invited to a conference on 7-8 October at the European parliament. Most Europeans have heard of the universal declaration, but they may not know that 2008 is also the anniversary of another milestone in human rights: the UN declaration on human rights defenders, adopted in 1998. This document recognises the importance and legitimacy of the work of rights activists, as well as their need for better protection. The EU followed suit in 2004, issuing a set of guidelines that encourages EU countries to do more to support activists at risk.

The world was still reeling from the horrors of World War II when the universal declaration of human rights was signed on 10 December 1948. It was the first time in history that nations came together to agree on basic principles of justice, equality, and rights for all.

Immediately hailed as a triumph, the declaration united very diverse and even conflicting political regimes, religious systems and cultural traditions. Six decades later, it has become the foundation of international human rights law, serving as a model for numerous treaties and declarations, including the European convention on human rights (1950) and the EU charter of fundamental rights (2000). And despite continued attacks on the universality of human rights, all countries have accepted the declaration, and some have incorporated it into their constitutions and laws.

Watch the Brussels conference live (7 October, 9.00 – 18.30)

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