“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
These are the famous words of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted 75 years ago today. And today, if one looks at the conditions of the people of the world, one would not be remiss to think that such a declaration never occurred, or that it is only selectively honored.
As the world commemorates Human Rights Day on 10 December, the plight of all oppressed peoples, including the Palestinians, and the blatant disregard for their rights, should take center stage and invite a moment of reflection followed by meaningful action.
Does the Universal Declaration truly matter? As with most things in the international sphere that aren’t hard power, the answer is yes and no.
From a realist perspective, which dominates international relations to a large extent, such issues are hot air. Human rights in foreign policy are at best a talking point to appease the public or a tool used to pressure a rival, but yield no real power in and of themselves. The United States’ unconditional support for Israel’s war on Gaza, which has only been recently tempered by weak public statements, is a testament to the sacrifice of such rights at the altar of strategic and private interests.
On the other hand, there is not only a widespread awareness among global publics of Israel’s infliction of a humanitarian catastrophe upon Gaza, as well as the many atrocities committed along the way from war crimes to a ‘genocide in the making’ as expressed by UN experts, but also a growing recognition of Israel’s historical denial of Palestinian rights amid an occupation and apartheid regime. This awareness leads to a changed global discourse, as well as a gradual shift in policy – not to mention a major hit to the credibility of most Western governments, particularly the US, especially among the youth, marginalized populations domestically, and those ‘on the fence’ about Israel/Palestine.
In this regard, injustice is condemned, and the tools to vocalize such injustice are provided by the conceptualization of human rights – what the international community has decided is the basic minimum every human deserves to have by virtue of existing in our world. When that basic demand is denied, it provides a moral impetus to speak against it and place pressure on those responsible or complicit.
Nevertheless, Palestinians have been systematically denied those rights by Israel for decades. Almost every article of the UDHR is violated in one way or another. For starters, a Palestinian under Israeli occupation does not have the same rights as an Israeli, nor are they treated as equal in dignity.
Article 3 of the UDHR says that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.” I imagine the families of the 20,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza and the over 250 killed in the West Bank since 7 October would beg to differ. Palestinians’ right to life, liberty, and security is conditional upon Israel’s willingness to provide it within its larger strategic calculus.
Article 5 prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading punishment. This luxury is not afforded to Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. Recently released prisoners who spoke to +972 Magazine said they experienced torture, beatings, humiliation, and threats of sexual violence.
Article 7 upholds the equality of all before the law. Unfortunately, Israeli settler extremists in the West Bank are rarely prosecuted by the law, while Palestinians in the West Bank are tried by military courts.
Article 9 states that no one will be subjected to arbitrary arrests, detention, or exile. Yet Palestinians are frequently arbitrarily detained under administrative detention, without even going through the judicial system. Israel currently holds 2,070 Palestinians under administrative detention, detaining around 700 in October alone, according to Israeli human rights organization HaMoked.
Article 13 guarantees freedom of movement, while Israeli checkpoints in the Occupied Territories do the opposite. The UN documented 645 physical obstacles to the movement of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2023, and checkpoints are known to frequently delay Palestinians for hours.
Article 17 states that everyone has the right to own property and no one will be arbitrarily deprived of such property. One does not need to go as far back as the Nakba to see that Israeli dispossession of Palestinian land and property has been a central tenet of the Zionist project in Israel; sufficient to look at the expulsions and settler terrorism currently taking place in the West Bank while all property in Gaza is bombed to its foundation amid calls for a ‘second Nakba’.
Article 20 guarantees the right to peaceful assembly. Yet, when Palestinians tried that repeatedly over the years, including during the Great March of Return that started in 2018, they were met with violence. 214 Palestinians, including 46 children, were killed by Israel during the Great March of Return in 2018 and 2019.
Article 23 affirms that everyone has the right to work in favorable conditions, and to equal pay for equal work. Not only are Arab Israeli citizens – to say nothing of Palestinian non-citizens – paid less than their Jewish counterparts, but Palestinians who work in the Israeli construction sector face dangerous conditions. Then there’s the cruel deportation of workers from Gaza, tagged with ankle IDs, into a conflict zone amid the war on the enclave.
Article 25 spells out the right to a proper standard of living for all, including clothing, food, housing, and medical care. Even before the war on Gaza, UNICEF estimates that 25 percent of children under five were at risk of not meeting their full development due to poverty, poor nutrition, lack of access to basic services, stress, and exposure to violence. It is disturbing to think of what the number would be today, after subtracting the over 7,000 murdered children.
Nelson Mandela said, in 1977, that “we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians; without the resolution of conflicts in East Timor, the Sudan and other parts of the world.” This is because freedom is, to those who have been in some way denied a right or freedom, indivisible.
It is either whole or work still needs to be done.
One oppressed person is still one too many, as it means that the international system has failed them.
What many observers and commentators fail to recognize is that for most who speak about this issue, it is not about ideology or even about the Palestinians themselves; it is about justice. While those who defend Israel’s actions, checkered with displays of genocidal intent, base it on a purely political assertion of Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’ – the notion of an occupying power having a right to self-defense is nonsensical in international law – critics of Israel’s indiscriminate campaign largely base their criticism on notions of justice and ground it in international humanitarian and human rights law.
The UDHR is the building block for such arguments, though not legally binding in itself.
Interestingly, Article 28 of the UDHR states that “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” In other words, an international system based on human rights is a right in and of itself. This not only implies that a human rights perspective must be systematically integrated on all levels of the international system, but also favors an emphasis on an idealist worldview over a realist one – not surprisingly, since the Declaration is the ultimate expression of idealism on the international level.
Whether a body of human rights – or even the notion itself – can be considered universal not only in name but in interpretation and application is up for debate. However, the plight of the Palestinians and all oppressed peoples does not have time for debate. It is rather the time for action amid what professor of Holocaust and genocide studies Raz Segal termed “a textbook case of genocide.” The rhetoric of human rights, though it may be vague at some times and is not heeded by states in most, is a way to illuminate the double standards applied by Israel and its Western allies when it comes to the treatment of the Palestinians.
The 75-year-long legacy of the Universal Declaration is tainted by the 75-year-long plight of the Palestinian people. The states who signed it cannot be absolved of their responsibility until all those denied their agreed-upon rights are defended, until all wrongs are redressed. An endless battle to be sure, but one worth fighting. Right now, the Palestinians call for help because of the intensification of genocide 75 years in the making.
What Israel is doing in Gaza is antithetical to any notion of human rights. Neither is taking hostages, whether it is the 240 taken by Hamas or the overwhelming majority of the 7,000 Palestinians taken by Israel who are arbitrarily imprisoned or held hostage without charge.
Alongside them, the Sudanese – including ethnic Masalit civilians – the Congolese, and the Rohingya, among others, are voicing their appeals to the international community, in need of a public to fight with them for their rights.
Public pressure, in all its forms, is the only tool we have as individuals, civil society, and the wider international community. It is incredibly powerful, too. We must continue to speak up, continue to call out atrocities and rights violations, and continue to pursue justice in any way we can. Human Rights Day must be a call to revitalized action, or else it becomes a useless commemoration of a hollow notion.
On this Human Rights Day, we must recognize the long way to go for those denied their most basic of rights, as well as the urgency with which oppression, occupation, and an ongoing genocidal campaign in Palestine must be tackled.
The opinions and ideas expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Egyptian Streets’ editorial team. To submit an opinion article, please email [email protected].