Episode One - One Great Idea by Nicole Barrett - Justice

One Great Idea by Nicole Barrett

About the series

In this series, UBC faculty write about one great idea that significantly influenced their specific discipline and in turn, transformed how they approach their work.

About the author

Nicole Barrett is the Director of the International Justice and Human Rights Clinic and Executive Director of Allard Prize Initiatives at the Peter A. Allard School of Law.


In 1948, following the horrors of the Second World War, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) codified the great idea that all individuals are entitled to certain basic rights, regardless of nationality, gender, ethnicity, origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. These rights derive solely from being human and endeavour to describe the essential elements required for a life of dignity and respect. As human rights are universal, every individual in the world is equally entitled to them, regardless of the political, economic or cultural system from which they come. A Canadian lawyer has the same human rights as a Bangladeshi garment worker, a Ghanaian villager or a Saudi royal prince. Human rights reinforce the value of humanity by constructing universal standards, while simultaneously allowing different cultures, religions and ideologies to flourish.

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As human rights are universal, every individual in the world is equally entitled to them, regardless of the political, economic or cultural system from which they come.

While there are several important criticisms of human rights — the challenge of enforcement being foremost — these critiques do not detract from the fact that the widely-accepted concept of human rights is one of the great moral achievements of human history. Indeed, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the world’s most translated document, currently available in 505 languages. Promoting and protecting human rights is at the heart of the International Justice and Human Rights Clinic’s work, whether we are proposing laws to protect vulnerable workers overseas, working on prosecuting cases of sexual violence as a weapon of war, or helping to sue kleptocrats in exile to recover stolen public funds. Our work today is possible because of the one great idea that universal human rights be binding legal obligations.