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Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Eleanor Roosevelt with the Spanish version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Eleanor Roosevelt with the Spanish version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Created 1948
Ratified 1948-12-10
Author(s) John Peters Humphrey, among others
Purpose Human rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly ( 10 December 1948 at Palais de Chaillot, Paris). The Guinness Book of Records describes the UDHR as the "Most Translated Document" in the world. It consists of 30 articles which outline the view of the General Assembly on the human rights guaranteed to all people. The International Bill of Human Rights consists of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its two Optional Protocols. In 1966 the General Assembly adopted the two detailed Covenants which complete the International Bill of Human Rights; and in 1976, after the Covenants had been ratified by a sufficient number of individual nations, the Bill took on the force of international law.


Prior to the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, several countries had proclaimed comparable declarations. Examples include the Bill of Rights of England, the Bill of Rights in the United States, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in France. When the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany became apparent after the Second World War, the consensus within the world community was that the United Nations Charter did not sufficiently define the rights it referenced. A universal declaration that specified the rights of individuals was necessary . Canadian John Peters Humphrey was called upon by the United Nations Secretary-General to work on the project and became the Declaration's principal drafter. Humphrey was assisted by Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States, Jacques Maritain and René Cassin of France, Charles Malik of Lebanon, and P. C. Chang of the Republic of China, among others. According to Globalizing Family Values, the Declaration's pro-family phrases were the result of the Christian Democratic movement's influence on Cassin and Malik.

The proclamation was ratified during the General Assembly on 10 December 1948 by a vote of 48 in favour, 0 against, with 8 abstentions (all Soviet Bloc states, South Africa and Saudi Arabia). Despite the central role played by Canadian John Humphrey, the Canadian Government at first abstained from voting on the Declaration's draft, but later voted in favour of the final draft in the General Assembly.

Structure and legal implications

The document is laid out in the civil law tradition, including a preamble followed by thirty articles. It was conceived as a statement of objectives to be followed by governments. Some international lawyers believe that the Declaration forms part of customary international law and is a powerful tool in applying diplomatic and moral pressure to governments that violate any of its articles. The 1968 United Nations International Conference on Human Rights advised that it "constitutes an obligation for the members of the international community" to all persons. The declaration has served as the foundation for two binding UN human rights covenants, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It continues to be widely cited by academics, advocates, genarly and constitutional courts.

Praise and Criticism


  • "Taken as a whole, the Delegation of the United States believes that this is a good document – even a great document – and we propose to give it our full support. [...] In giving our approval to the Declaration today it is of primary importance that we keep clearly in mind the basic character of the document. It is not a treaty; it is not an international agreement. It is not and does not purport to be a statement of law or of legal obligation. It is a Declaration of basic principles of human rights and freedoms[....] This Universal Declaration of Human Rights may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere."
Eleanor Roosevelt, first chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) that drafted the Declaration, 10 December 1948.
  • "For people of good will around the world, that document is more than just words: It's a global testament of humanity, a standard by which any humble person on Earth can stand in judgment of any government on Earth."
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan (March 1989, US Department of State Bulletin)
  • In a speech on 5 October 1995, Pope John Paul II called the UDHR "one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time".
  • Statement by Marcello Spatafora on behalf of the European Union on 10 December 2003: "Over the past 55 years, humanity has made extraordinary progress in the promotion and protection of human rights thanks to the creative force generated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, undoubtedly one of the most influential documents in history. It is a remarkable document, full of idealism but also of determination to learn lessons from the past and not to repeat the same mistakes. Most importantly, it placed human rights at the centre of the framework of principles and obligations shaping relations within the international community."

Islamic criticism

  • Predominantly Islamic countries, like Sudan, Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, frequently criticized the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for its perceived failure to take into the account the cultural and religious context of non- Western countries. In 1981, the Iranian representative to the United Nations, Said Rajaie-Khorassani, articulated the position of his country regarding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by saying that the UDHR was "a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition", which could not be implemented by Muslims without trespassing the Islamic law.
  • There are 57 Muslim nations who are members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. On 30 June 2000, the OIC officially resolved to support the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, an alternative document that says people have "freedom and right to a dignified life in accordance with the Islamic Shari’ah".

Other criticism

Some conservatives and libertarians believe that economic rights must be provided by others through forceful extraction, for example taxation, and that they negate other peoples' inalienable rights. In reference to Article 25's declaration of a right to medical care, Andrew Bissell argued, "Health care doesn’t simply grow on trees; if it is to be made a right for some, the means to provide that right must be confiscated from one will want to enter the medical profession when the reward for years of careful schooling and study is not fair remuneration, but rather, patients who feel entitled to one’s efforts, and a government that enslaves the very minds upon which patients’ lives depend." Jeane Kirkpatrick, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, argued that certain economic rights cannot be human rights; Kirkpatrick called the Declaration "a letter to Santa Claus", saying, "Neither nature, experience, nor probability informs these lists of 'entitlements', which are subject to no constraints except those of the mind and appetite of their authors."

The first, and presumably the most important, sentence of the UN foundational document, the United Nations Charter, states

"We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war ..."

The human right to refuse to participate in "the scourge of war" is, however, omitted from the UN's Declaration of Human Rights. This appears contradictory since this Declaration was produced by the same members who wrote the first sentence of the United Nations Charter. This contradiction is currently carried out in practice every time one of those same founding member nations imprisons a person who exercises that implied human right, thereby logically becoming a violator of that implied human right. In some cases the refusal to participate in “the scourge of war” is not merely a right, but indeed a legal obligation as we see in this quote about the UN's official formulation of the Nuremberg Principles into International Law in 1950:

"Under UN General Assembly Resolution 177 (II), paragraph (a), the International Law Commission was directed to "formulate the principles of international law recognized in the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and in the judgment of the Tribunal.""

Ensuring that obligation of the above International Law is met requires a logically concomitant precautionary principle to allow, at a minimum, the right of an individual refuse to participate in "the scourge of war." Therefore this concomitant "human right" is a glaring omission from the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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