UN chief Antonio Guterres has lauded the “essential” role played by Indian reformer and educator Hansa Jivraj Mehta in shaping the landmark document on Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ensuring it contains a more gender sensitive language.
Guterres, addressing the opening of a special exhibit on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the world body’s headquarters Thursday, said pioneering women played essential parts in shaping the document.
“Hansa Mehta of India, for example, without whom we would likely be speaking of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man rather than of Human Rights,” Guterres said.
Mehta’s contribution, along with that of other inspirational women, although not part of the official drafting committee of the document, is highlighted in the exhibit.
Mehta was a reformer, educator and a prolific writer. She served as the Indian delegate to the UN Commission on Human Rights from 1947 to 1948 and is widely known for ensuring a more gender sensitive language in the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UDHR.
She is widely credited with making a significant change in the language of Article 1 of the UDHR, by replacing the phrase “All men are born free and equal” to “All human beings are born free and equal.”
Mehta was also a member of the Constituent Assembly that drafted the Constitution of independent India. The Indian Constitution draws upon several aspects from both the UN Charter and the UDHR.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a milestone document in the history of human rights.
Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948 as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations.
It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected and it has been translated into over 500 languages.
Guterres also lauded the contribution of Begum Shaista Ikramullah of Pakistan, who championed Article 16 on equal rights in marriage, to combat child marriage and forced marriage and of Minerva Bernardino of the Dominican Republic, who successfully argued for inclusion of “the equality of men and women” in the preamble of the Universal Declaration.
He noted that Bernardino, together with other Latin American women delegates Bertha Lutz of Brazil and Isabel de Vidal of Uruguay also played a crucial role a few years earlier in the drafting of the United Nations Charter, which became the first international agreement to recognise the equal rights of men and women, paving the way for the Universal Declaration.
“At this pivotal moment in our struggle for gender equality and women’s empowerment worldwide, we want to pay tribute to those pioneers. They are an inspiration to us all, especially to young women and men today,” he said.
Guterres said the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has permeated policies and constitutions in all regions and has unleashed the power of women’s full participation and spurred the fight against discrimination and racism.
“It has given rise to a rich body of legally binding international human rights treaties and it continues to be an inspiration to people around the world. However, we still have a long way to go before respect for human rights is truly universal,” he said.
Guterres however voiced concern that the words of the Declaration are not yet matched by facts on the ground and in practice, people all over the world still endure constraints on or even total denial of their human rights.
“Lasting peace and inclusive sustainable development can never be achieved without full respect for human rights. On this anniversary, let us not only reflect on the enduring importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, let us also speak out and stand up for human rights everywhere,” he said.