Eduardo Reyes asks where the non-lawyers celebrating Human Rights Day are.

Reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris - 67 years ago today - my grandfather Narciso Reyes had to fight disbelief at the freshly endorsed words on the page.

A new recruit to the diplomatic corps for a recently independent nation, he could see the post-war world around him taking a cynical turn. The clarity of the goals set out in the declaration’s preamble and 30 articles, he observed, were at odds with the direction governments were then tugging in. 

Conference itself wasn’t characterised by soothing platitudes, but was regularly treated to lead Soviet delegate Andrey Vyshinsky’s powerful anti-Western rhetoric. And it took place in the shadow of the Berlin airlift – in-between conference sessions, delegates met to decide the best way home if war broke out.

Yet, here was this document – reflecting what Geoffrey Robertson QC has called a ‘flash of anger’ that the world was not a better place; that, as the final version puts it: ‘Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.’

It does not, though, just cover classic liberal rights of freedom of expression and religion, fair trials and torture – but also housing, health, education and equality.

Still, the idea that the declaration could ever have teeth seemed fanciful.

Enter the lawyers – professionals who could provide tools to make these rights stick. If you believe in the ‘straight line of progress’ version of history, the 1948 declaration leads to the European Convention on Human Rights (effective 1953), and (I’m skipping some covenants with long titles here) the UK’s Human Rights Act 1998.

Pin Magna Carta on the start of the line and you have a very satisfying sense of Whig-like progress to a lovely goal.

But of course it’s not that simple. Such ‘progress’ is not entirely safe. In the UK human rights have become a ‘lawyer’s thing’ – making our commitment to human rights much less safe.

You can see this in our public discourse on human rights. Lawyers are over-represented in the leadership of our pro-human rights groups – and when the merits and faults of the HRA are debated, you’ll commonly find a lawyer on the ‘pro’ side, and a non-lawyer providing the sceptic’s view.

Much of this speaks creditably of lawyers – willing to speak truth unto power and stick up for the rights of unpopular minorities. And Canadian academic lawyer John Humphrey wrote most of draft 1 of the declaration. 

But in 1948 there was no sense that lawyers had sole ownership of ‘human rights’. Non-lawyer Eleanor Roosevelt was famously instrumental in steering the declaration to completion. The UK sent a non-lawyer trade union leader to the drafting committee - Charles Dukes - who also worked on the drafting of the legally binding International Convention on Human Rights.

The declaration has in part reached the age of 67 because it is powerful document. Nothing so unequivocal, that aims so high and is so easy to understand, will come out of current climate change talks, also in Paris.

And finding a replacement would be well nigh impossible – a text that Stalin let through, Putin would likely veto if it were on the table today.

I’m glad, of course, that lawyers are marking International Human Rights Day.

But at this distance from the Paris conference, I worry that non-lawyers will mark it in vastly insufficient numbers – the declaration was, after all, intended for them as a ‘common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations’.

Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor