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8 December 2018

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Tag(s): Foreign Affairs, Politics & Economics
This coming Monday the 10th December marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). On 10th December, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Declaration as a common standard of achievement for all people and nations, setting out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be protected universally. For the past seven decades, it has been the cornerstone of the international human rights system, helping to protect the rights of children, women, victims of torture, people with disabilities and many more. It has inspired dozens of treaties, hundreds of organisations and countless grassroots activists.

But across the world, human rights abuses persist. Attacks on human rights defenders are increasing and hard-won gains in protections are being rolled back in every continent. The very concept of human rights is being questioned, including by some of its staunchest defenders. As the Chair of the UN Human Rights Council Michelle Bachelet says, we urgently need a “pushback on the pushback.”[i]

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an historic document that was adopted by the third session of the United Nations General Assembly on 10th December, 1948 in Paris. Of the then 58 members of the UN, 48 voted in favour, none against, eight abstained and two did not vote.

In January 1941, in  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s last State of the Union address before the United States joined the Second World War he introduced the theme of the Four Freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom  from fear, and freedom from want. The Allies later adopted these as their basic war aims. The UN Charter “reaffirmed faith in fundamental human rights, and dignity and worth of the human person” and committed all member states to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”.

But once the sheer range of crimes committed by Nazi Germany became fully apparent, it was generally agreed that the Charter did not sufficiently define the rights to which it referred. A universal declaration that specified the rights of individuals was necessary to give effect to the Charter’s provisions.

In June 1946, the UN Economic and Social Council established the Commission on Human Rights, comprising 18 members from various nationalities and political backgrounds. The Commission, a standing body of the UN, was constituted to undertake the work of preparing what was initially conceived as an International Bill of Rights.

The Commission established a special Universal Declaration of Human Rights Drafting Committee, chaired by President Roosevelt’s widow, Eleanor, to write the articles of the Declaration. [ii] It was Eleanor Roosevelt’s choice to call it a Declaration. She was mindful of the effect Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence had had on subsequent legislation and other nations. The draft was of course greatly amended by the Commission and by other UN Member States. British representatives were extremely frustrated that the proposal had moral but no legal obligation. It was not until 1976 that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights came into force, giving a legal status to most of the Declaration.

The Declaration consists of a preamble and thirty articles:
  • The preamble sets out the historical and social causes that led to the necessity of drafting the Declaration.
  • Articles 1-2 established the basic concepts of dignity, liberty, equality and brotherhood.
  • Articles 3-5 established other individual rights, such as the right to life and the prohibition of slavery, as well as a universal freedom of speech.
  • Articles 6-11 refer to the fundamental legality of human rights with specific remedies cited for their defence if violated.
  • Articles 12-17 established the rights of the individual towards the community (including such things as freedom of movement).
  • Articles 18-21 sanctioned the so-called “constitutional liberties”, and with spiritual, public, and political freedoms, such as freedom of thought, opinion, religion and conscience, word, and peaceful association of the individual.
  • Articles 22-27 sanctioned an individual’s economic, social and cultural rights, including healthcare.
  • Articles 28-30 established the general ways of using these rights, the areas in which these rights of the individual can not be applied, and that they can not be overcome against the individual.
The debate in the General Assembly revealed the vested interests of various nations. South Africa sought to protect its system of apartheid, which clearly violated several articles in the Declaration. Saudi Arabia could not come to terms with Article 18 , which states that everyone has the right “to change his religion or belief”; and Article 16, on equal marriage rights. The six communist countries abstained on the grounds that the Declaration did not go far enough in condemning fascism and Naziism. But Eleanor Roosevelt attributed the abstention by Soviet bloc countries to Article 13, which provided the right of citizens to leave their countries.

The 48 countries that voted in favour of the Declaration were:

Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Iceland, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Siam, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Eight countries abstained: Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, Byelorussian SSR, Ukrainian SSR, South Africa and Yugoslavia.

Honduras and Yemen did not vote.

For the first time in international law, the term “the rule of law” was used in the preamble of the Declaration. Paragraph 3 reads as follows: “Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.”

Though the Declaration is not itself a treaty, it was explicitly adopted for the purpose of defining the meaning of the words “fundamental freedoms” and “human rights” in the Charter which is binding on all member states, including those admitted at a later date. It is therefore a fundamental constitutional document of the UN. Many international lawyers believe that the Declaration forms part of customary international law and it has certainly been adopted in other legally binding instruments. The 1968 UN International Conference on Human Rights advised that the Declaration “constitutes an obligation for the members of the international community” to all persons.

Given its historical context as a reaction to the atrocities of the Second World War it is sad that so many of its supporters at the time have not lived up to their commitments, while others who have joined the UN family have only paid lip service to many of the articles.  This is not helped by some of the controversial members of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights which was replaced by the UN Human Rights Council in 2006. Membership is organised by Regional Groups and the current list of members makes uncomfortable reading.

The 47 members of the Council who each serve a three year term currently includes Afghanistan, Brazil, China, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Hungary, Iraq, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela. There are human rights abuses in every country including mine but it is clear to me that many of these countries seek membership of this Council, not to protect human rights but to protect themselves from criticism for abuses of human rights.

The Declaration of Human Rights Day is commemorated every year on 10th December known as Human Rights Day, or International Human Rights Day. The commemoration is observed by individuals, community, and religious groups, human rights organisations, parliaments, governments and the United Nations.

I am fortunate to live in a country which on the whole has a good record on human rights. But we should never be complacent. For example, it is scandalous that slavery has been allowed to return and even to be flourishing.    

[i] I blogged about Michelle Bachelet at the time of her presidency of Chile. See my blog Chilean Update, Wine Women and Scandal 28th February, 2015 My wife and I met her at the Chilean Ambassador’s residence in London when she was President.  The Ambassador Rafael Moreno introduced me as the man who’d introduced him to cricket!
[ii] In my blog No Ordinary Woman published on 11th November, 2018
I described the role my sister’s mother-in-law Edith Penrose played in assisting Eleanor Roosevelt in this work.



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