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Updated 06/06/2005

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Do human beings everywhere possess at all times and in all situations certain rights? Since ancient times great thinkers have been asking themselves precisely this question. The ancient Greeks were not unfamiliar with the idea that some rights are derived from a higher law, and Enlightenment figures such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau developed the concept of a "natural law" in which certain rights are innate to mankind. It was not until the last century, however, with the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the nations of the world affirmed the existence of a set of rights inherent to all human beings. 

This affirmation by the world community of the existence of universal human rights was in large part a reaction to the atrocities of the 20th century. The two World Wars and the Holocaust not only brought to the forefront the centuries-old question of intrinsic human rights but also showed the world community the urgent need to spell out a universal human rights code. In 1945, therefore, the United Nations Charter gave the newly created Commission on Human Rights, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the task of drafting what would become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

After considering proposals from individuals, states, and NGOs, the Commission on Human Rights decided to draft two sets of documents for the promotion and protection of human rights. In 1948, the commission submitted to the U.N. Economic and Social Council a draft of the first of these documents, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On Dec. 10 of that same year the United Nations General Assembly adopted without dissent the Universal Declaration. The second set of more legally binding documents, the Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, was not approved by the General Assembly until 1966. 

The universal rights enshrined in the 1948 declaration include not only echoes of the traditional political and civil guarantees of the British Magna Carta, the U.S. Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, but also social and economic rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights joins the familiar rights to life, liberty, property, security of person, equality before the law, due process, and freedom of thought and expression with more polemic rights such as social security, education, just pay and an adequate standard of living. Most importantly, the declaration strengthens the position of the individual before the state. 

Since its adoption by the General Assembly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has achieved near-universal ratification and near-universal noncompliance. Despite this shortfall, the legacy of the 1948 document is hard to deny. It has triggered the creation of mechanisms for the protection of human rights not only within the United Nations but also in the general world community.

For more information

UDHR Web site, including text

"The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the Past and Future of the United Nations' Human Rights Efforts." Elsa Stamatopoulou. In the Spring 1999 issue of the ILSA Journal of International and Comparative Law.

"The Legacy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Prof. Anne F. Bayefsky. In the Spring 1999 issue of the ILSA Journal of International and Comparative Law.

"What are Human Rights?" Maurice Cranston. The Bedley Head Ltd. 1973.

"World War Two and the Universal Declaration." Johannes Morsink.  In the May 1993 issue of Human Rights Quarterly.