Next Monday marks the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in Paris 70 years ago. Directly motivated by the atrocities of the recently ended World War II, this formal expression of the primacy of human rights reasserted the commitments contained in the UN’s founding charter, signed three years earlier.
It elaborated the theoretical basis for those rights with the ringing words: “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.”
Human rights are those rights which are inherent to all human beings. All are equally entitled to them without discrimination. Alongside civil and political rights, such as freedom of assembly, thought and expression, the declaration set forth a range of social and economic rights, including rights to work, education and participation in the cultural life of the community. The principle of the universality of human rights is the corner stone of international human rights law.
As a quick glance at Chapter IV of Malta’s Constitution illustrates, all human rights are indivisible, whether they are civil and political, or economic, social and cultural. The chapter in the Independence Constitution, entitled “Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of the Individual”, sets down clearly those Maltese human rights safeguarded under the Constitution.
These include the protection of right to life. Protection from arbitrary arrest or detention. Protection from forced labour, inhuman treatment, deprivation of property without compensation and for privacy of home or other property.
It includes provisions to secure the protection of the law and protection of freedom of conscience and worship, of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association. Prohibition of deportation. Protection of freedom of movement. Protection from discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, gender, religion or sexual orientation.
Tied closely with Chapter IV of the Constitution is Chapter 2. This lays down Declarations of Principles, which by their nature are closely allied with human rights. They are a list of economic, cultural and social values – ranging from promotion of culture, to protection of work, and others – which the State should respect when enacting legislation.
They are akin to civil rights, but under our Constitution currently have no standing in law and place only a moral, not a statutory, obligation on governments and lawmakers.
I have recently been reading the so-called Universal Periodic Report to the United Nations in Geneva, which was submitted a fortnight ago by Helena Dalli, Malta’s Minister for European Affairs and Equality, setting out the massive progress Malta has made in the field of human and civil rights in the last few years.
As we look back on Malta’s progress we can see more clearly now that the results of the referendum on divorce seven years ago marked a historic turning point banishing the Dark Age of Church-State relations of the 1960s and acting as the catalyst for what has happened since 2013.
Helena Dalli should take full credit for the turnaround that has occurred in Malta’s international reputation in human and civil rights
While I am the first to acknowledge that there are still deeply ingrained conservative strains in Maltese society, the progress made is irreversible and should be a matter for national pride. In the fields of gay and transgender rights (LGBTIQ), disability rights, children’s rights, women’s rights, sexual and reproductive health rights, Malta probably scores among the most enlightened and progressive in Europe.
In all these fields the structure of support for such rights is made up of a combination of well-judged legislation, together with the provision of adequate organisational, human and financial resources. A national human rights institution, the Human Rights and Equality Commission with a mandate to protect and promote human rights is being established.
The progress registered by Malta in the field of LGBTIQ rights are well known. For the third year running the country has retained its place at the top of the European index which reviews the human rights of LGBTIQ persons in 49 countries. From civil unions to marriage equality to the affirmation of sexual orientation and gender identity, this is one of the most comprehensive examples of good legislation in an area where tolerance and understanding were most needed.
In the area of rights for persons with disability, Malta has adopted an approach of empowerment as well as protection. The National Disability Strategy is just being finalised. The rights of the child remain high with the emphasis on physical and mental well-being.
Women’s rights have made huge and long overdue strides in a society hitherto male-dominated and, in many respects, verging on the misogynistic. Combating domestic violence has been tackled energetically at several levels.
Efforts to overcome gender stereotypes and to open up opportunities for women in fields of employment and in public and political life have been actively pursued. Sexual and reproductive healthrights for women have been freed of religious repression.
Although the intensely difficult and politically charged issues of integration of migrants and refugees, freedom of expression, the laws on libel and slander have been tackled and a Whistle-blower Act has been enacted, these must be regarded as works in progress, not the finished article.
The important point is that the foundations for further improvements in these tricky areas have been laid.
As we mark Human Rights Day, we should recall how women were among the principal players in shaping the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945, had been appointed by President Harry Truman as a delegate to the UN General Assembly and served as the first chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights.
She was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration, supported by an outstanding group of women from many nations.
It is pure chance of course that Malta’s progress in this field for the last five years has been led by a minister who happens to be a woman. Being a minister includes receiving brickbats as well as bouquets. Helena Dalli should take full credit for the turnaround that has occurred in Malta’s international reputation in human and civil rights - from being a closed and deeply conservative society to being open, liberal, progressive and ready to embrace diversity.
This is a record which might hold her in good stead when Malta’s next nomination for EU Commissioner comes to be considered.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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