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The UN set out to protect human rights 75 years ago

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an important start – but there’s much work still ahead.

- December 10, 2023
Policemen with helmets and a sign saying "Respect for human rights," at a January 2009 protest in Caracas, Venezuela.
“Respect human rights” sign at a January 2009 protest in Caracas, Venezuela (cc) Rodrigo Suarez

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), an ambitious non-binding framework that details the rights that every human being possesses, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” and regardless of the country to which they belong. The value of this declaration lies both in its aspirations (to commit the U.N. and the international community of states to prioritize human rights) and the subsequent legalization of its core ideas in international treaties, national constitutions, civil society activism, and public discourse.

One day earlier, on December 9, the General Assembly had adopted the landmark Genocide Convention (see my piece commemorating the convention). The U.N. itself had been created just three years earlier in 1945, following the end of World War II. The ravages of two global wars affirmed for states the importance of creating an intergovernmental organization to promote and support international peace and security, social and economic development, and human rights. The Armenian Genocide (1915-1916), the first genocide of the 20th century, and the Holocaust (1933-1945) also prompted the international community of states, in the new United Nations, to develop international law to define human rights and to devise mechanisms to promote respect for and punish violations of human rights.

The drafting process was far from inclusive

In 1947, a group of nine individuals from nine countries convened to draft an “international bill of human rights” in the U.N.’s new Commission on Human Rights. Australia, Canada, Chile, China, France, Lebanon, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States were the countries represented. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had been appointed U.S. delegate to the General Assembly by President Harry Truman, was elected chairperson. Notably, no members of the drafting committee were from Africa, Central America and the Caribbean, South Asia, or Southeast Asia. Many countries in these regions were still colonized by European powers.

The question on the minds of many, at the time, was whether an exclusive drafting process such as this one could yield an inclusive international declaration of rights. In response, the commission increased representation through three working groups – inviting representatives from Egypt, India, Iran, Panama, the Philippines, Uruguay, Yugoslavia, and others (but still no Africans). These groups were charged with exploring possibilities for a convention (or several conventions), as compared to a non-legally binding declaration, and to consider issues of implementation. Individual governments could also submit feedback

Ultimately, the commission adopted by a 12-0 vote, with four abstentions, a compromise document: a non-binding declaration reflecting different countries’ conceptions of human rights. The declaration was transmitted to the Economic and Social Council, one of the U.N.’s six principal organs, with responsibility for advancing global economic, social, and environmental development. The council adopted the declaration and sent it to the General Assembly for consideration.

The United Nations adopts the UDHR

After dozens of meetings and more than 100 proposed amendments to the draft, the General Assembly adopted the UDHR in a 48-0 vote, with eight abstentions. The Soviet Union and five other communist countries (Czechoslovakia, the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, Poland, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and Yugoslavia) abstained, maintaining that the declaration did not go far enough and that it missed an important opportunity to condemn fascism and Nazism. Saudi Arabia objected to the declaration’s affirmation of equal rights of marriage between spouses. South Africa abstained, anticipating the document would be used to condemn apartheid. The General Assembly would later adopt the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid in 1973 and explicitly name South Africa as an example in the treaty’s text. 

The UDHR contains 30 articles and begins with an acknowledgement of all people’s inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights. Importantly, the declaration connects respect for these rights with peace in the world.

What are our human rights?

The declaration’s first five articles affirm that everyone is born free and equal and, by virtue of being human, is entitled to all human rights, starting with physical integrity rights. Those are the “right to life, liberty and security of person” (Article 3), the right to not be enslaved (Article 4), and the right to not be “subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 5). As I discussed in here at Good Authority last week, human rights organizations like Amnesty International have condemned the U.S. use of the death penalty, including for persons with mental disabilities. And as I will discuss in a piece here later this month, human rights advocates around the world – from Australia, to Japan, to Iceland – are challenging solitary confinement as a punishment for incarcerated people, calling it torture.

The next six articles cover legal rights. These include the right to be recognized before the law (Article 6), the right to equal protection of the law (Article 7), and the right to an effective court remedy when one’s rights are violated (Article 8). Article 9 stipulates the right to not be arbitrarily arrested, detained, or exiled, while Article 10 affirms the right to a fair and public trial before an impartial court. There is also the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty and the right to not have past actions judged by new laws and standards (Article 11). In the past year alone, Human Rights Watch has called out, among others, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen for violating these rights.

Next is the right to not have one’s privacy, home, or correspondence interfered with arbitrarily (Article 12). This is followed by the right to move freely and to leave and return to one’s country (Article 13). Article 14 recognizes the right to seek asylum from persecution. The Biden administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program seems to contravene these rights by placing asylum seekers at risk of extortion, kidnapping, and other violence.

How are these rights faring, 75 years later?

Nationality, property, and marriage rights follow in Articles 15, 16, and 17. Articles 18, 19, and 20 establish the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; and freedom of association. At times, these rights come into conflict. France, for example, came under criticism for defending free speech regarding depictions of the Prophet Muhammad – including cartoons and caricatures – contrary to the beliefs and customs of Muslims.

Article 21 establishes a right to democracy, including “universal and equal suffrage,” which few countries back in 1948 or today could say they fully respect. China, long an authoritarian state, has been rolling back democracy in Hong Kong and threatening Taiwan’s sovereignty and democratic government in recent years, for instance.

Article 22 lays out the right to social security and Articles 23 and 24 stipulate workers’ rights. In the United States, many analysts expect social security and Medicare programs will run out of funds in the next decade. And the U.S. gender pay gap shows little sign of closing. 

Articles 25 and 26 cover standards of living, health, and education. In the wake of the covid-19 pandemic, the World Bank and other institutions have called for the strengthening of health systems in Latin America and elsewhere. Reports from the U.N. high commissioner for human rights indicate approximately half of Ukrainian child refugees in Europe were enrolled in school this past year.

Rounding out the UDHR, Article 27 affirms cultural rights, while Article 28 specifies people’s rights to social and international order. The ongoing Israel-Hamas war has shown just how far individuals, groups, and nations can stray from these principles. Importantly, as Article 29 points out, everyone has a duty to protect human rights and we cannot enjoy rights at others’ expense. And none of the rights and freedoms in the declaration, according to Article 30, can be destroyed by any state, group, or person.

The declaration was an important start

The UDHR is a pioneering text and many treaties have since sought to build on it. To scholars, human rights practitioners, country leaders, and international institutions, it is clear how far we have yet to go. But as a friend and colleague recently reminded me, the UDHR is a very, very young document. Its ideas are revolutionary and they have made and are making an impact, bit by bit. As Christopher Fariss shows in an article for the American Political Science Review, human rights are improving over time. And as he and coauthor Geoff Dancy show in another article in the same journal, human rights ideas have resonance among everyday people around the world, often in places where these rights are not respected. This offers evidence for hope, as human rights advocates and social movements fight for people’s fundamental human dignity and human flourishing.