Universal Declaration of Human Rights and NORDEM reach anniversary milestone

Rhon Franz Salmon|Published 10. Dec 2018
This week marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 2018 is also the 25-year anniversary of the establishment of the Norwegian Resource Bank for Democracy and Human Rights, NORDEM. Though separated by 45 years, the link between the declaration's vision and NORDEM's work is close.

10th December is the anniversary for when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was introduced as a standard of dignity to which all nations should aspire.

In 1948, moved by the human capacity for death and destruction, the world came together, determined to never again give room to neither the actions nor events that led to the Second World War. The outcome was a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on December 10th, 1948. Also described as an international bill of rights, the declaration specified the fundamental rights for all human beings and was the first document of its kind to do so, globally.  

Though non-binding at the onset, the declaration nevertheless instigated a series of international human rights conventions, or treaties, over the decades that followed. These conventions addressed torture, civil and political rights, social and economic rights, the rights of women and children, the rights of the disabled, migrant workers and their families, and the rights of the disappeared.  

The legacy of the declaration is not limited to human rights treaties. Non-governmental organisations, alliances and mechanisms play a role in making the kind of world envisioned by the declaration a reality. One of these mechanisms, for a quarter-century, has been NORDEM.  

A young boy runs with his tyre past buildings damaged by airstrikes in Saada's Old Town in Yemen. Up until August 2015, this area was home to Saada's oldest market with thousands of people selling vegetables, spices and fabrics in stores and street stalls. (Photo: Giles Clarke/UNOCHA)
Read caption A young boy runs with his tyre past buildings damaged by airstrikes in Saada's Old Town in Yemen. Up until August 2015, this area was home to Saada's oldest market with thousands of people selling vegetables, spices and fabrics in stores and street stalls. (Photo: Giles Clarke/UNOCHA)

25 Years of NORDEM 

NORDEM was established in 1993 by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The purpose of the mechanism was to provide civilian capacity with an expertise in human rights, peacebuilding and democratisation. 

NORDEM fulfils its objective by recruiting, training and deploying personnel to international organisations like the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union. 

In 2017, NORDEM joined NORCAP, strengthening her peacebuilding capacity, particularly within election observation, democratisation and human rights. NORDEM continues to provide civilian expertise to democracy and human rights missions, with experts across five continents, impacting a combined population of over half-a-billion. 

Since becoming part of NORCAP, NORDEM has become an essential addition to the department, according to Benedicte Giæver, NORCAP’s Director. 

“We very much welcome the inclusion of NORDEM into NORCAP, which gives us a broader approach and a bigger tool box in the work to address crises around the world. Looking at the serious challenges to international human rights and the rule of law, even in Europe, it is evident that there is a great need for NORDEM’s contributions”, Giæver said. 

Human Rights in the 21st Century 

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, since its inception, has largely contributed to an international order of cooperation. Nevertheless, serious challenges exist that—if not addressed—could threaten to undo international human rights gains made in the 20th century.  

Democracy expanded throughout the years following World War II. This was largely due to the collapse of colonialism and the success of independence movements. It expanded again when the iron curtain of the Soviet Union melted away at the end of the Cold War. Today, several of the countries that benefited from these waves of democratisation encounter challenges to their institutions meant to safeguard fundamental human rights. 

With the aim of reducing these challenges, NORDEM deploys election observers to international observation missions. In 2018 alone, NORDEM’s election observers have observed pivotal elections in the Balkan and Caucasus regions, as well the historic elections in Zimbabwe.  

By providing impartial assessments, election observers assist states in making their electoral processes more compliant with international standards.  

According to Alexander Shlyk, Head of Election Department in OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), “consistent secondment of well-prepared, professional and motivated observers is a valuable contribution of Norway to ODIHR election observation across the OSCE area.” 

NORDEM also deploys personnel who work to document human rights violations and strengthen the protection of human rights in settings outside elections.  

In eastern Ukraine, armed conflict has been ongoing since the 2014 uprising of Russian-backed separatists. NORDEM deploys personnel to the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, an unarmed civilian mission reporting on on-the-ground developments, such as ceasefire and human rights violations.  

Other NORDEM deployees work to strengthen the respect for human rights within the security sector, build capacity among state and non-state actors to monitor and report on human rights related developments, and to ensure that a country’s proposed legislation is in line with international law.  

“NORDEM is a trusted ally in our endeavor to promote and protect human rights and democracy. NORDEM enables us to maintain the high level of professionalism and dedication essential to our work by providing seconded international human rights experts and lawyers, and political analysts."
Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, Director of ODIHR

Applied Human Rights Training Course 

NORDEM is not, however, limited to its reputation as a civilian capacity provider and election observation. The organisation remains just as dedicated to education and training. Every year, the organisation hosts a week-long training in Gran, a scenic, rural town just 70 minutes’ drive north of Oslo. There, surrounded by the woods and crisp Autumn air, 20 selected participants from around the world meet for the Applied Human Rights Training Course. By the end of the course, participants will have acquired tools and skills needed for promoting, and integrating, human rights in their respective assignments for international organisations. 

The course covers subject areas such as international human rights and humanitarian law, the integration of gender perspectives in human rights work, cultural sensitivity and how to build capacity in national stakeholders to improve the human rights situation. use capacity building as a tool to assist national stakeholders 

One of the course instructors, William O’Neill, is a lawyer specialised in humanitarian, human rights and refugee law. He first entered the human rights field operation foray in 1993 as leader of the legal department in the UN/Organisation of American States’ mission in Haiti. Given the breadth of his experience, William recognises and understands the value of the Applied Human Rights course.  

“Trainings like this did not (always) exist. We would just send them out there and pray they would know what to do”, he said.  

The Applied Human Rights Training course provides NORDEM roster members with more than tools and skills need to meet 21st century challenges. It is also part of a roadmap for where human rights work goes from here. 

Monitors speaking to a civilian in Shchastia in July 2017. (Photo: OSCE/Mariia Aleksevych)
Read caption Monitors speaking to a civilian in Shchastia in July 2017. (Photo: OSCE/Mariia Aleksevych)

NORDEM and UDHR: Forward Together 

Despite its respectable age, the 70-years-old standards of dignity and equality set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are as relevant today as they were at the end of the Second World War.  

Susanne Ringgaard, a consultant with an expertise in human rights and international humanitarian law in armed conflict situations, and one of the instructors at NORDEM’s annual training course, thinks that the declaration remains both vital and relevant going forward.  

“There really is no alternative to the current framework - it may be flawed, but it is the best we have got, so we should think very carefully before we consider tearing it down. We would inevitably end up with a weaker resolution were it to be renegotiated today,” she said.  

Though the world has come a long since December 10, 1948, NORDEM remains committed to help bring about a world where human rights are recognised and accepted, universally.