The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Landmark International Standard

December 10th marks the anniversary of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a touchstone piece of human rights work, fundamental to laying guidelines for later legislation on and treatment of human rights in the international community. The Declaration formally asserts that all human beings are free and equal, regardless of race, class, nationality, religion, gender or any other category. Agreement on this document by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10th, 1948 marked the first time that a statement of what constituted human rights and a call to protect them was laid out in a formal document that received widespread agreement.

At the commencement of work on the declaration, the international community was still reeling from the devastation of World War II. The atrocities committed by the malignant regimes of the time brought attention to the issue of human rights. The world community was horrified by the conduct of the Nazi party, and nations with a concern for human protection came together to act. With the birth of the United Nations in 1945, and the general hope for international improvement and for the success of the new organization, the time was right for an attempt to distinguish human rights. The creation of the United Nations was centered around the maintenance of peace, with the concern for human rights falling into second place, but nonetheless this marked an important step forward in the institutionalization of human rights concerns.

Outlining what constituted basic human rights was not a brand-new endeavor. There had been prior efforts such as the Statement of Essential Human Rights put forward by the American Law Institute in 1944. This document was put together by a diverse group of intellectuals, and later had an influence on the drafting process of the UDHR. The former League of Nations attempted a document to protect international labor and minorities, among others, through various international treaties. At this time, human rights were considered a domestic concern and not an appropriate issue for international moderation. The atrocities of WWII brought nations together in the desire for a ‘basic standard of human dignity and worth’.

Eleanor Roosevelt with the Declaration. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The attempt was made, with debatable success, to represent different world views through representation of each of the UN member states, then only fifty, in the drafting process. There were a few particularly instrumental individuals. Eleanor Roosevelt was the Chair of the UN Human Rights Commission at the time, and was instrumental to the creation of the declaration. She served as a skilled manager of the conflicting viewpoints vying for representation in the document, and was considered to fill the vital role of consensus builder and relationship manager. P. C. Chang, the Committee’s Vice Chair, came from China. He was particularly concerned with the document being applicable to non-Western cultures, and concentrating on the incorporation of other philosophies in the declaration. The Lebanese Charles Malik was the President of ECOSCO and Chair of the Third Committee, a boon later as the document moved through the Third Committee and the General Assembly for approval. A fourth important member of the group was France’s René Cassin, a lawyer and philosopher, who was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his human rights work regarding the influence of states on creating the conditions of human actions.

In addition to individuals from nations around the world, nongovernmental organizations took part in the creation process. NGOs such as the American Law Institute, the Federal Council of Churches, the Women’s Trade Union, and the International League for Human Rights all submitted drafts and comments to the Commission in the hopes of influencing the resulting document.

The underlying purpose of the document was a formal definition of human rights and recognition that they should be protected. The UDHR preamble states that the declaration is ‘a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society… shall strive… to promote respect for… to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.’ The declaration contains thirty articles outlining the freedoms and rights that were agreed upon as most vital and basic to human life and security. These rights range from participation in culture, to an adequate standard of healthy life, to education, to participation in government, to recognition as a free and equal person. The document is considered a landmark because, despite the fact that the declaration is not a legal agreement, it marks the first time that humans were the primary focus of an international agreement, rather than power politics.

The status of the UDHR as a declaration rather than a binding agreement at the time of its birth is another important aspect of its history. As it was being drafted, some states, including the United States, expressed serious concern about domestic interference and violations of state sovereignty from formal international legislation on human rights. Nations such as the United Kingdom supported a more binding agreement, for a precise outline of what UN member states were obligated to do to protect these universal standards. The debate over the UDHR as a morally compelling document or a legally obligating treaty ended in the declaration not becoming international legislation when it was passed by the UN in 1948. This was due to the final decision of the drafters, and as well as because the document was agreed upon by the member states’ representatives to the UN rather than formally ratified by the individual state governments. However, through time, the declaration gained legal value through use as a foundation for other formal international legislation. For example, various states and regional organizations have incorporated the declaration or parts of it into laws, legal agreements, or treaties, ranging from the International Convention of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Convention of the Rights of the Child. These various kinds of legal agreements were ratified by the states who participate in them, thus making those aspects of the UDHR incorporated within them legally binding.

Today, the UN groups the UDHR with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to form the International Bill of Human Rights. Both covenants incorporate the rights written into the UDHR, and as both are formal legal agreements, are binding on the agreeing states. This solidifies the recognition and protections of human rights the UDHR outlined.

As more international agreements on human rights come into existence and receive wide support, Irene Khan, the former Secretary General of Amnesty International, argues that, moving forward, the focus must be on implementation. Issues of violations of human rights by countries who have agreed to respect and promote them are unfortunately not rare, and the response to these violations is inconsistent and not multilateral. The continuing debate regarding respect of sovereignty and noninterference adds another layer of complexity. However, as the rights and freedoms of the declaration have been widely accepted and transformed into international law, they deserve to be defended. Agreeing to the words of the declaration means little without effort to uphold it. The declaration is an important and foundational piece of human rights work and, despite the unending obstacles that accompany any effort for international action and agreement, will doubtless continue to encourage further humanitarian regulation in the future.

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