2018 has been a year of remarkable and thought-provoking anniversaries. This month we’re celebrating another of those landmark moments, the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948, it was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which enshrined the universal right to participate in public affairs, a subject naturally close to the heart of the whole ERS Group, with our focus on Making Democracy Happen.
At the start of the year, I wrote about the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Thanks to the efforts of the suffragette movement, some women secured the right to vote on 6 February 1918. In November of the same year, the Parliament (Qualification of Women Act) gave women over 21 the right to stand for election as an MP. On 14 December 1918, these women had the opportunity to exercise both new rights in a general election for the first time. 8.5 million women were eligible to vote then. That number is estimated at 25 million women today.
30 years later another great stride forward for democracy was made with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including Article 21 which declared ‘universal and equal suffrage’ a fundamental human right.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an extraordinary document, which affirms people’s rights and freedoms. The culmination of a two year drafting process which began at the first ever session of the UN General Assembly in 1946, it was drafted by the Commission on Human Rights, whose 18 members had diverse political, cultural and religious backgrounds. The Commission included members from Australia, Canada, Chile, China, France, Lebanon, the Soviet Union, the UK and the United States.
Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, chaired the UDHR drafting committee and was recognized as the driving force for the Declaration’s adoption. She was determined to ensure the Declaration would be “a clear, brief text, which could be readily understood by the ordinary man and woman.” When it was adopted, she heralded it as ‘a Magna Carta for all mankind’.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Article 21.
(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
Democratic Rights Are Human Rights
While the aspirations of the UDHR may exceed its accomplishments to date, it remains the foundation of international human rights law and, together with the two International Covenants on Rights, comprise the International Bill of Human Rights. It also holds the record as the most translated document in the world, having been translated into over 500 languages ranging from Abkhaz to Zulu.
Access to democratic rights as enshrined in Article 21 is an ongoing challenge for many around the world, but there has been genuine progress. Today, most States have a national parliament. 70 years ago, there were only 26. 198 countries now allow women the right to vote, compared to 91 countries in 1948. Yet even in 2018, women represent only 24% of national parliaments. In the UK, there have been 4,503 male MPs since 1918 and only 491 women. Evidently, there is still plenty of work to do.
Delivering Democracy Through Technology
Making access to democracy a reality, not just an ideal, requires practical solutions. Every year, we process 6 million Household Enquiry Forms and print millions of ballot papers. Working with over 75% of local authorities around the country, we provide services that enable over 35 million people to vote in local and national elections. Our sister company, Xpress, helps local authorities save time and money on the annual canvass with systems and tools like the Mobile Canvasser App, which enables Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) to produce an accurate, complete electoral register.
As the UK’s leading provider of election and voting services, we have been making democracy happen for decades, but we continue to innovate. While voting online is not currently possible in local or national elections in the UK, an increasing number of our clients in other sectors are now using our online voting platform to manage nominations, engage their electorate and monitor votes live. This year, Xpress delivered the first fully digital register to be used in a UK election for Swindon Council, a cutting-edge project which has been shortlisted as a finalist in the LGC Awards 2019.
Technology is driving the next steps in democratic rights and the ERS Group is delivering those solutions. Now, as we begin an exciting new chapter as a Civica Group company, we are looking forward to seizing the new opportunities available to us and ensuring we continue to lead the way in the digitisation of democracy.
Making Democracy Happen
As we approach the end of this year of democratic landmarks, let’s celebrate the achievements they commemorate, but also look to the future. Democracy is a process more than a destination. Making access to democracy a reality for all requires continued and concerted work – “Deeds not words”, as the Suffragettes declared. At ERS, we couldn’t agree more. So, here’s to 2019 and continuing to make democracy happen.
Sian Roberts, ERS Group Chief Executive Officer