Q&A

Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Why does it matter?

Published December 17, 2015

Claude Welch.

Claude Welch, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science, talks about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by the United Nations General Assembly nearly 70 years ago. An internationally renowned expert in human rights, Welch wrote an essay on the topic for the U.S. State Department that was published in French, Russian, Farsi and other languages, and distributed internationally.

Why does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) matter?

CW: The UDHR is among the most important documents of the 20th century. It has been translated into 337 different languages. It has become a touchstone for actions by governments, individuals, and nongovernmental groups. It has been ratified by every country in the world. Practically no other international instrument can claim this honor. In short, the UDHR has acquired a moral and political significance matched by few documents.

It provides both a guide to present action and an evolving set of ideas for future implementation at the national level. Increasingly, the UDHR’s principles have been embodied in what states do and it serves as the foundation for the International Bill of Rights and several other crucial human rights agreements. And, not least, the UDHR has proven a remarkably flexible foundation for a continued broadening and deepening of the very concept of human rights. How many treaties can claim such honors?

How did the UDHR come into being?

CW: Every country in the world had been touched directly or indirectly by World War II. Seventy million people perished. Planning for a future international organization to succeed the League of Nations started during the war. In the spring of 1945, 50 governments and hundreds of nongovernmental organizations met in San Francisco. The states hammered out the “constitution” of a new United Nations.

The preamble to the U.N. Charter includes these famous words: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined … to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small …”

The U.N. Charter called for a commission on human rights, which was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. With the help of the U.N.’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the new Commission on Human Rights studied how different cultures, nations and philosophers viewed human rights.

In September 1948, the commission sent its draft to the U.N. General Assembly. Lengthy debates clarified the draft language and built increasing consensus. Discussion and approval took two full years, including 81 meetings, 168 amendments to the draft text and nearly 1,400 votes. The climax came on Dec. 10, 1948, when the General Assembly adopted the UDHR without a single dissenting vote, although eight states abstained.

What does the UDHR say?

CW: The UDHR sets forth a number of objectives — some to be achieved immediately, others as rapidly as feasible. The UDHR also provided the foundation for a series of other international agreements, both global and regional. Finally, the UDHR inspired people around the world to claim their rights, not simply accept the diktat of others.

The UDHR provides “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” Every “individual and every organ of society” shall promote “respect for these rights and freedoms … by progressive measures ...” The goal was “to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.”

Underlying the entire declaration is a basic value, as stated in Article 1: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This assertion ran in the face of centuries of practice and widespread beliefs. The UDHR could not, by itself, reverse or transform popular attitudes. Nonetheless, it pointed in a crucial direction.

Perhaps most important, the clarity and directness of its language inspired millions. An increasing number of translations and conscious efforts to spread the UDHR’s message popularized its principles. Men and women everywhere recognized that they enjoyed rights that no government should take away.

Drafters of the UDHR consciously drew upon several legal and philosophical traditions. Many of its 30 articles deal with civil and political rights, which protect individuals from government and from state-condoned private abuses. Others discuss freedoms common to each individual, such as the right to free expression. Still others set forth economic, social and cultural rights, such as access to education and the right to work.

What are some of the results of the UDHR?

CW: Several major treaties, ratified by more than 100 countries, trace their origins to the UDHR. They include, in chronological order:

  • The International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (1965).
  • The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966).
  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966).
  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979).
  • The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984).
  • The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).

When a country ratifies an international agreement, it assumes a legal obligation. Citizens of states signing on to the UDHR and its progeny thus possess rights they may not have fully enjoyed earlier because their government has acknowledged and pledged to respect those rights. Signatories to many human rights treaties must prepare and submit regular reports on their citizens’ freedoms. All these reports go to U.N. specialists who study them carefully and recommend where changes are needed.

Citizens groups increasingly provide their own reports, with additional details. Thus, one of the hopes of the drafters of the UDHR has been increasingly met: People have a voice in their own destiny.

Still other international agreements have stemmed from the UDHR:

  • Prosecution of indicted war criminals by the International Criminal Court, functioning as of 2002.
  • The “responsibility to protect,” as approved by the General Assembly in 2005, which places a moral obligation on countries to help states wracked by widespread disturbances or civil wars.
  • An August 2006 agreement on a draft convention on the rights of the disabled.
  • Adoption of a Universal Declaration of Indigenous Rights by the U.N. in September 2007.
  • Reducing or eliminating the death penalty in much of Europe and elsewhere.
  • Giving more attention to how transnational corporations affect human rights where they operate.

These developments required significant discussion. Nearly 20 years passed between adoption of the UDHR and the “entry into force” — full acceptance into international law — of the two international covenants described above. Twenty-five years of discussion preceded general assembly acceptance of the Universal Declaration of Indigenous Rights. On the other hand, agreement about establishing the International Criminal Court came within four years and the convention on children’s rights in less than a year. The picture is thus mixed.

What steps lie ahead?

CW: For six decades, the UDHR has proven its durability. Yet debates remain.

Cultural distinctiveness continues to arouse discussion about universality — the “u” in UDHR. Although the declaration’s principles have been reaffirmed time after time, some assert that cultures or regions differ so much that no real global standards can exist.

A second area of controversy swirls around the rights of persons belonging to ethnic groups and national minorities. As individuals, they cannot be discriminated against because of their backgrounds. However, long-term economic or political disadvantages, deeply engrained social attitudes, and the like against the groups to which they belong raise profound questions. Do groups per se have rights?

Additional uncertainty exists with respect to internally displaced persons. They are individuals who cannot live in their usual homes because of conflict, but have not crossed an international border. Internally displaced persons (known as IDPs) confront horrendous, dangerous living conditions. They also exist in a legal no-man’s-land. Had they left their own countries, they would have enjoyed international legal protection. Having remained at home or near home, they continue to be liable to many problems.

A fourth area of controversy centers on how best to settle large-scale civil conflicts. Should the international community intervene for humanitarian reasons? Should peace and reconciliation committees or similar groups be set up to establish the “truth”? Should negotiations be encouraged between opposing groups by promising amnesty to those accused of war crimes? Or would justice be served better by trying to arrest and try them in the International Criminal Court? How far do the obligations of the “right to protect” extend? Who should take responsibility for any coercive intervention?

Still another area of concern involves apologies and reparations for previous human rights injustices. Earlier violence against large numbers of people of other nationalities can — and does — sour relations between and among governments and their populations. Hence, this whole area is fraught with political difficulties, irrespective of its importance for human rights generally.

Truth commissions and truth and reconciliation groups provide an additional dimension, showing the evolution and growth of human rights. They investigate previous abuses. Their establishment suggests that previous “human wrongs” cannot be hidden forever.

Serious economic issues undercut how much — and indeed whether — individuals can enjoy full human rights. If human rights “begin with breakfast,” persons must have reasonable chances for employment and schooling. They must be able to break out of the trap of poverty and avoid the debilitating impact of malnutrition and endemic disease. The UDHR speaks about these concerns in general terms. However, serious problems remain in light of economic inequalities within and between nations. Wasteful or corrupt practices by government officials reduce what is available for other needs.

Finally, and in many ways most significant, the UDHR cannot be enforced by “traditional” means of coercion. The U.N. has no armed forces of its own, but must obtain parts of other states’ militaries for help. The U.N. agencies directly concerned with human rights, such as the Geneva-based Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, receive little funding.

Looking back to 1948, however, progress has been remarkable. A visionary document has become a living reality. The UDHR should be celebrated for its firm foundation and flexible structure.