December 10, 2023
Seventy-five years ago today, on December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly announced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
At a time when the world was still reeling from the death and destruction of World War II, the Soviet Union was blockading Berlin, Italy and France were convulsed with communist-backed labor agitation, Arabs opposed the new state of Israel, communists and nationalists battled in China, and segregationists in the U.S. were forming their own political party to stop the government from protecting civil rights for Black Americans, the member countries of the United Nations nonetheless came together to adopt a landmark document: a common standard of fundamental rights for all human beings.
The United Nations itself was only three years old, having been formed in 1945 as a key part of an international order based on rules on which nations agreed, rather than the idea that might makes right, which had twice in just over twenty years brought wars that involved the globe. In early 1946 the United Nations Economic and Social Council organized a nine-person commission on human rights to set up the mission of a permanent Human Rights Commission. Unlike other U.N. commissions, though, the selection of its members would be based not on their national affiliations but on their personal merit.
President Harry S. Truman had appointed Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and much beloved defender of human rights in the United States, as a delegate to the United Nations. In turn, U.N. Secretary-General Trygve Lie from Norway put her on the commission to develop a plan for the formal human rights commission. That first commission, in turn, asked Roosevelt to take the chair.
“[T]he free peoples” and “all of the people liberated from slavery, put in you their confidence and their hope, so that everywhere the authority of these rights, respect of which is the essential condition of the dignity of the person, be respected,” a U.N. official told the commission at its first meeting on April 29, 1946. Their work would establish the United Nations as a centerpiece of the postwar rules-based international order.
The U.N. official noted that the commission must figure out how to define the violation of human rights not only internationally but also within a nation, and must suggest how to protect “the rights of man all over the world.” If a procedure for identifying and addressing violations “had existed a few years ago,” he said, “the human community would have been able to stop those who started the war at the moment when they were still weak and the world catastrophe would have been avoided.”
Drafted over the next two years, the final document began with a preamble explaining that a UDHR was necessary because “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” and because “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” Because “the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,” the preamble said, “human rights should be protected by the rule of law.”
The thirty articles that followed established that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…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 political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs.”
Those rights included freedom from slavery, torture, degrading punishment, arbitrary arrest, exile, and “arbitrary interference with…privacy, family, home or correspondence, [and] attacks upon…honour and reputation.”
They included the right to equality before the law and to a fair trial, the right to travel both within a country and outside of it, the right to marry and to establish a family, the right to own property.
They included the “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” “freedom of opinion and expression,” peaceful assembly, the right to participate in government, either “directly or through freely chosen representatives,” the right of equal access to public service. After all, the UDHR noted, the authority of government rests on the will of the people, “expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage.”
They included the right to choose how and where to work, the right to equal pay for equal work, the right to unionize, and the right to fair pay that ensures “an existence worthy of human dignity.”
They included “the right to a standard of living adequate for…health and well-being…, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond [one’s] control.”
They included the right to free education that develops students fully and strengthens “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Education “shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”
They included the right to participate in art and science.
They included the right to live in the sort of society in which the rights and freedoms outlined in the UDHR could be realized. And, the document concluded, “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.”
Although eight countries abstained from the UDHR—six countries from the Soviet bloc, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia—no country voted against it, making the vote unanimous. The declaration was not a treaty and was not legally binding; it was a declaration of principles.
Since then, though, the UDHR has become the foundation of international human rights law. More than eighty international treaties and declarations, along with regional human rights conventions, domestic human rights bills, and constitutional provisions, make up a legally binding system to protect human rights. All of the members of the United Nations have ratified at least one of the major international human rights treaties, and four out of five have ratified four or more.
The UDHR is a vital part of the rules-based order that restrains leaders from human rights abuses, giving victims a language and a set of principles to condemn mistreatment, language and principles that were unimaginable before 1948.
But the UDHR remains aspirational. “As we look at the first 75 years of the UDHR,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said today, “we recognize what we’ve accomplished in this time, but also know that much work remains. Too often, authorities fail to protect or—worse—trample on human rights and fundamental freedoms, often in the name of security or to maintain their grip on power. Whether arresting and wrongfully detaining journalists and dissidents, restricting an individual’s freedom of religion or belief, or committing atrocities and acts of genocide, violations and abuses of human rights undermine progress made in support of the UDHR. In the face of these actions, we must press for greater human rights protection and promote accountability whenever we see violations or abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
“On its 75th anniversary, the UDHR must continue to be our guiding light as we strive to create the world in which we want to live. Its message is as important today as it was 75 years ago: human rights belong to everyone, everywhere.”
[Eleanor Roosevelt with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library & Museum, via Wikipedia Commons]