Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Fifty years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a bulwark against oppression and discrimination. In the wake of a devastating world war, which had witnessed some of the most barbarous crimes in human history, the Universal Declaration marked the first time that the rights and freedoms of individuals were set forth in such detail. It also represented the first international recognition that human rights and fundamental freedoms are applicable to every person, everywhere. In this sense, the Universal Declaration was a landmark achievement in world history. Today, it continues to affect people's lives and inspire human rights activism and legislation all over the world.

The Universal Declaration is remarkable in two fundamental aspects. In 1948, the then 58 Member States of the United Nations represented a range of ideologies, political systems and religious and cultural backgrounds, as well as different stages of economic development. The authors of the Declaration, themselves from different regions of the world, sought to ensure that the draft text would reflect these different cultural traditions and incorporate common values inherent in the world's principal legal systems and religious and philosophical traditions. Most important, the Universal Declaration was to be a common statement of mutual aspirations -- a shared vision of a more equitable and just world.

The success of their endeavour is demonstrated by the virtually universal acceptance of the Declaration. Today, the Universal Declaration, translated into nearly 250 national and local languages, is the best known and most cited human rights document in the world. The foundation of international human rights law, the Universal Declaration serves as a model for numerous international treaties and declarations and is incorporated in the constitutions and laws of many countries.

Drafting the Universal Declaration
The preparatory work for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a remarkable and early example of the Organization’s capacity to bring about international cooperation and consensus. The text was drafted in two years – between January 1947, when the Commission on Human Rights first met to prepare an International Bill of Human Rights,and December 1948, when the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration. An eight-member drafting committee prepared the preliminary text of the Universal Declaration.The committee, chaired by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of the former United States President, agreed on the central importance of affirming universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the principles of non-discrimination and civil and political rights, as well as social, cultural and economic rights. The Commission then revised the draft declaration, in the light of replies from Member States, before submitting it to the General Assembly.

The General Assembly, in turn, scrutinized the document, with the 58 Member States voting a total of 1,400 times on practically every word and every clause of the text. There were many debates. Some Islamic States objected to the articles on equal marriage rights and on the right to change religious belief, for example, while several Western countries criticized the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights. On 10 December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with 8 abstentions. Since then, 10 December is celebrated every year worldwide as Human Rights Day. The adoption of the Declaration was immediately hailed as a triumph, uniting very diverse and even conflicting political regimes, religious systems and cultural traditions. During 1998, the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration is being commemorated all over the world as Human RightsYear.

For the first time in history, the international community embraced a document considered

to have universal value -- "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations". Its Preamble acknowledges the importance of a human rights legal framework to maintaining international peace and security, stating that recognition of the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all individuals is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. Elaborating the United Nations Charter's declared purpose of promoting social progress and well-being in larger freedom, the Declaration gives equal importance to economic, social and cultural rights and to civil rights and political liberties, and affords them the same degree of protection. The Declaration has inspired more than 60 international human rights instruments, which together constitute a comprehensive system of legally binding treaties for the promotion and protection of human rights.

The Universal Declaration covers the range of human rights in 30 clear and concise articles. The first two articles lay the universal foundation of human rights: human beings are equal because of their shared essence of human dignity; human rights are universal, not because of any State or international organization, but because they belong to all of humanity. The two articles assure that human rights are the birthright of everyone, not privileges of a select few, nor privileges to be granted or denied. Article 1 declares that "all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason andconscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." Article 2 recognizes the universal dignity of a life free from discrimination. "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, 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."

The first cluster of articles, 3 to 21, sets forth civil and political rights to which everyone is entitled. The right to life, liberty and personal security, recognized in Article 3, sets the base for all following political rights and civil liberties, including freedom from slavery, torture and arbitrary arrest, as well as the rights to a fair trial, free speech and free movement and privacy.

The second cluster of articles, 22 to27, sets forth the economic, social and cultural rights to which all human beings are entitled. The cornerstone of these rights is Article 22, acknowledging that, as a member of society, everyone has the right to social security and is therefore entitled to the realization of the economic, social and cultural rights "indispensable" for his or her dignity and free and full personal development. Five articles elaborate the rights necessary for the enjoyment of the fundamental right to social security, including economic rights related to work, fair remuneration and leisure, social rights concerning an adequate standard of living for health, well-being and education, and the right to participate in the cultural life of the community.

The third and final cluster of articles, 28 to 30, provides a larger protective framework in which all human rights are to be universally enjoyed. Article 28 recognizes the right to a social and international order that enables the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Article 29 acknowledges that, along with rights, human beings also have obligations to the community which also enable them to develop their individual potential freely and fully. Article 30, finally, protects the interpretation of the articles of the Declaration from any outside interference contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. It explicitly states that no State, group or person can claim, on the basis of the Declaration, to have the right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration.

International Bill of Human Rights

Once the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, the Commission on Human Rights, the premier human rights intergovernmental body within the United Nations, set out to translate its principles into international treaties that protected specific rights. Given the unprecedented nature of the task, the General Assembly decided to draft two Covenants codifying the two sets of rights outlined in the Universal Declaration: Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Member States debated the individual provisions for two decades, seeking to give explicit endorsement to certain aspects of the universality of human rights only implicitly referred to in the Universal Declaration, such as the right of all peoples to self-determination, as well as reference to certain vulnerable groups, such as indigenous people and minorities.

Consensus was reached in 1966, and the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that year. The preambles and articles 1, 2, 3 and 5 are virtually identical in both International Covenants. Both preambles recognize that human rights derive from the inherent dignity of human beings. Article 1 of each Covenant affirms that all peoples have the right of self-determination and that by virtue of that right they are free to determine their political status and to pursue their economic, social and cultural development. Article 2, in both cases, reaffirms the principle of non-discrimination, echoing the Universal Declaration, while Article 3 stresses that States should ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all human rights. Article 5 of both Covenants echoes the final provision of the Universal Declaration, providing safeguards against the destruction or undue limitation of any human right or fundamental freedom. Two Optional Protocols elaborate certain provisions of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, one providing for complaints by individuals, the other advocating the abolition of the death penalty.

When they entered into force in 1976, the two International Covenants made many of the provisions of the Universal Declaration effectively binding for States that ratified them. These two International Covenants, together with the Universal Declaration and the Optional Protocols, comprise the International Bill of Human Rights.

Over 60 human rights treaties elaborate fundamental rights and freedoms contained in the International Bill of Human Rights, addressing concerns such as slavery, genocide, humanitarian law, the administration of justice, social development, religious tolerance, cultural cooperation, discrimination, violence against women, and the status of refugees and minorities. The following four Conventions, relating to racial discrimination, torture, women and children, are considered core human rights treaties, together with the two International Covenants:

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (adopted in 1965/entry into force 1969) was a ground-breaking treaty defining and condemning racial discrimination. Calling for national measures towards the advancement of specific racial or ethnic groups, the Convention also makes the dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or inspiring racial hatred punishable by law.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979/1981) specifies measures for the advancement and empowerment of women in private and public life, particularly in the areas of education, employment, health, marriage and the family.

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984/1987) bans torture and rape as weapons of war. In 1998, in a major effort to help torture victims and to step up international attempts to end torture, the United Nations declared 26 June as the annual International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989/1990) is the most universally ratified human rights Convention. Only two Member States, the United States and Somalia, are not yet parties to the Convention, which protects children, among other things, from economic and sexual exploitation.

Some 14 States have incorporated provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child into their constitutions, while 35 have passed new laws conforming to the Convention or amended laws related to child abuse, child labour and adoption. Other Member States have extended the length of compulsory education, guaranteed child refugees and minority children special protection or reformed juvenile justice systems, as stipulated by the Convention.

[Click here for full texts of the United Nations international human rights instruments.]

World Conference on Human Rights

The United Nations designated 1968 as the International Year for Human Rights to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and convened an International Conference on Human Rights in Tehran, Iran, to enhance national and international human rights efforts and initiatives. After evaluating the impact of the Universal Declaration on national legislation and judicial decisions, the Conference approved the Proclamation of Tehran, which formulated a programme for the future, addressing the problems of colonialism, racial discrimination, illiteracy and the protection of the family. The Tehran Proclamation emphasized particularly the principle of non-discrimination, condemning the policy of apartheid as a "crime against humanity", and urged the international community to ratify the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted by the United Nations two years earlier.

Twenty-five years later, the World Conference on Human Rights, convened in Vienna in 1993, reassessed the progress of United Nations human rights work over the years. The Vienna Conference was marked by an unprecedented degree of support by the international community. Some 7,000 participants, including delegations from 171 States and representatives of more than 840 non-governmental organizations, gathered for two weeks to set out a revitalized programme for global human rights action. There was broad consensus that, with fundamental rights codified and the essential machinery in place, it was time to implement the established human rights standards and norms with greater vigilance.

In adopting the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action by consensus, the World Conference reaffirmed the centrality of the Universal Declaration for human rights protection, and recognized, for the first time unanimously, the right to development as an inalienable right and an integral part of international human rights law. The Conference also emphasized that, as human rights are universal and indivisible as well as interrelated and interdependent, they should be promoted in equal manner. The delegates rejected arguments that some human rights were optional or subordinate to cultural traditions and practices. The Vienna Conference thus gave high priority to preserving the integrity of the Universal Declaration. Giving new impetus to the worldwide implementation of human rights norms, the Conference emphasized that most violations could be addressed by forcefully implementing existing norms through the mechanisms already available.

Stating that the protection and promotion of human rights are the "first responsibility" of Governments, the Vienna Declaration recognized democracy as a human right, thus strengthening the promotion of democracy and the rule of law. Also, giving high priority to the universal ratification of international human rights treaties, the World Conference urged States especially to ratify promptly the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Similarly, the Conference took innovative steps to protect the rights of vulnerable groups and to bring women's rights into the mainstream of United Nations human rights work, supporting the establishment of a Special Rapporteur on violence against women and calling for an international decade of the world's indigenous peoples.

The World Conference had a catalytic role in revitalizing the human rights programme of the United Nations. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action provides the international community with a new framework of planning, dialogue and cooperation that enables an integrated approach to promoting human rights. The recognition of the interdependence between democracy, development and human rights, for example, laid the groundwork for increased cooperation among international development agencies and national organizations in promoting human rights. The Vienna Declaration states, for the first time explicitly, that all organs, programmes and specialized agencies of the United Nations system should have a central role in strengthening human rights. Its key institutional recommendation, however, was the establishment of the post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to coordinate all human rights activities system-wide. The World Conference also called for a comprehensive five-year review of the progress made in the implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action in 1998. This review coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[Click here for the full text of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and for information on the five-year review of their implementation.]