Seventy years on from the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), what progress have we made? – an interview with Kate Gilmore, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Kate Gilmore. Source: URG, FlickrKate Gilmore. Source: URG, Flickr

In both her speech at the Cambridge Union and interview with The Cambridge Globalist, one could detect a certain dissatisfaction in Kate Gilmore. Upon reflection as to UN progress after its adoption of the UDHR, Gilmore contrasts its ideals with reality, concluding, firmly, that ‘all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration’[1] have not yet been achieved.

In examining the Middle East, a region widely considered the test-case of UN influence, one can begin to appreciate Gilmore’s solemnity regarding UDHR success. Historically, persistent attempts by Arab leaders politically to unify the region, in spite of its vast socio-cultural variation, have resulted in it becoming vulnerable to recurrent conflict. This, coupled with its undoubted strategic importance, create conditions that appear to call for the very style of mediation pioneered by the UN. Yet, seventy years on and with the wheels of the UN still active in the region, the plague of war and human-rights abuse has merely worked its way from one country to another. Gilmore too recognises this irony, with three of the five instances of global humanitarian crises she lists being based in the Middle East. In all three the UN has tried, and failed, to remedy the situation.

Yet, it was clear that she still remains faithful to the timeless vision of the UN: to promote internationalist democracy following the disastrous attempts at isolationism in the early-20th century. In recalling the historical context of the organisation, established post-war in 1945, Gilmore is passionate, compelling us to remember that this was a set of promises ‘born out of violent extremism’ and the ‘answer to the greatest cruelty of human beings.’

In thirty poetic articles, the UDHR lauds the ‘recognition of the inherent dignity of the equal and inalienable right of all members of the human family’ as the ‘foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’[2] Gilmore, who started as a social worker in Australia before founding the country’s first Centre Against Sexual Assault, has always been committed to the betterment of humanity. This vision is based, according to her superior – Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussain – on the ‘most resonant and beautiful words’; ‘the power of the Universal Declaration is the power of ideas to change the world.’[3] But it must be questioned, therefore, what have these ‘beautiful words’ achieved in practice?

Gilmore asserts that the UN is a club, a ‘debating society’, locked in ‘perpetual debate’ on the challenges of the world. What appears a fitting metaphor for the semantics of democracy, in fact speaks of an underlying criticism that the organisation has been unable to ward off, that the excesses of time it spends talking about action is time wasted not acting. Her tone one of diplomatic grandeur, Gilmore looks me in the eye and raps her knuckles on the table – the UN may be ‘insufficient, but at least they’re there.’

This is perhaps reminiscent of the passive mindset adopted regarding Resolution 1483. The highly-anticipated UN response to the Iraq war, the resolution left unanswered questions as to whether or not the US and UK-led occupation was sanctioned, and in practice proved to have little legal weight. The aim was to secure peace and restore provisions for the people of Iraq at a time when conservative estimations of humanitarian damage suggested fewer than one-third of Iraqi children had access to clean water and around 70% of families were affected by lack of food.[4] The wording of the resolution is keen on ‘stressing the rights of the Iraqi’, ‘encouraging international efforts’ and ‘promoting protection of human rights.’ The UN, an international organisation with the most suitable infrastructure to deal with the damage caused by conflict, arguably responded with little more than hand-holding and affirmation. This reliance on the ‘power of ideas’ has achieved little for the 40% of deaths that were attributed to the collapse of infrastructure. The collapse of health, sanitation, transportation and other systems amounted to an enormous violation of that promised by the Universal Declaration.

This appears a world away from Al Hussein’s celebrations. According to him, ‘independence and autonomy…freedom’ have been secured for ‘many’ and ‘countless people’.  But with little scrutiny as to the degree or substance behind this rhetoric, one must question where these ‘countless people’ of which he speaks are. Whilst the power of ideas is a suitable slogan, its effects perhaps remain largely intangible.

The Iraq conflict was fifty years on from the creation UDHR but now, after another twenty, Gilmore admits that those ideas are yet to ‘change the world’. In Yemen, another Middle Eastern region still hoping for the realisation of the promises made by the Declaration, the world faces the worst humanitarian crisis to date. A look to the UN webpage on its involvement in Yemen is incredibly sparse, at face value.[5] The United Nations has ‘provided support for negotiations’ and ‘provided support for the effective implementation…’ but in practice, little has been achieved. This follows on from another questionable Resolution 2201 (2015) which expressed ‘grave concern’ and reaffirmed the UN’s support. But in a country with more than 80% of its civilians below the poverty line[6], the world sits tight anticipating this revolutionary ‘power of ideas’ to work its magic. Even three years on from the Resolution more than 70% of the population remain in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

Gilmore laughs at her admission that ‘human rights people are often a bit obsessed about law, [and] trying to ensure more enforceability.’ Except, it seems that, the soft-approach of welcoming and emphasising rights has failed in this aim. She repeatedly draws a parallel with Churchill’s assessment of democracy, that the UN is only ‘a little less worse than all the other alternatives.’ The judgement of the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights is that, seventy years on, ‘that the promise is poorly kept is not the fault of the promise – it doesn’t demean the promise, it demeans the promiser.’ And thus, it must stand to question, to what extent chasing this ‘power of ideas’ will ‘change the world’ in practical terms.


[1]United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 2

[2] Ibid. Foreword.

[3] Ibid. Foreword.

[4] Al Samarie, N. (2007) Humanitarian implications of the wars in Iraq. In: International Review of the Red Cross.