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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Posted on July 06 2020

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
 

On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Drafted in the aftermath of World War II, this document is considered the foundation of international human rights law.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights drafted the declaration under the leadership of committee chair Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. For many years, committee member René Cassin was considered its primary author. From 1924 to 1938, Cassin was the French delegate to the League of Nations, the international peace organization formed after the end of World War I. Cassin was well known for his work in finding peaceful solutions to international conflicts.

Today, however, historians understand that Cassin was just one of several authors who contributed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The first draft of the declaration was written by John Humphrey, a Canadian who was the United Nations Secretariat's Human Rights Director. Others who had a hand in creating the declaration were commission chair Eleanor Roosevelt, Chinese author and diplomat Chang Peng-chun, and Lebanese philosopher and diplomat Charles Habib Malik.

After some minor revisions, the declaration was approved unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. However, several countries abstained, or chose not to vote. These included the Belarusian SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic), Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian SSR, and Yugoslavia.

A right is an action or thing that a person is entitled to have, do, or receive. Rights ensure that people can perform—or not perform—certain actions. There are two main categories of rights: legal and natural. Legal rights are those that people have because of a particular legal system. For example, if a U.S. citizen is 18 years old, he or she has the right to vote in an election. However, citizens of the South American country of Brazil have a right to vote in elections when they are 16 years old. Since the U.S. and Brazil have different voting laws, Americans and Brazilians each have different voting rights.

A natural right, however, is an entitlement people have because they are human beings, and not because they are citizens of one country or another. Many scholars think that the idea of natural rights is the cornerstone of American democracy. The U.S. Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal,” and this idea is “self-evident.” If an idea is self-evident, it means that it is obviously true. Since it is obviously true, there is no need to prove it.

The rights that the Declaration of Independence accepted as clearly true without having to provide proof for them were “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Governments, the Declaration argues, are not established in order to give people these rights. They are instead created to protect the rights people have already because they are human beings. According to the Americans making the declaration, the British government had become “destructive of these ends,” meaning that it no longer served the primary function of government, which is to preserve natural rights. Since the British government did not uphold its responsibility to preserve the colonist’s natural rights, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”

The Declaration of Independence’s views of natural rights is reflected in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In keeping with the idea that people had the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the First Amendment spelled out what a society based on these self-evident truths would look like. There would be no laws “prohibiting the free exercise thereof [of religion].” People would have “freedom of speech,” as well as the rights to assemble “peaceably” and “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Surprisingly, some of the early opposition to the Bill of Rights was the belief that since these ideas were so self-evident, there was no need to state them as law.

Much later, after World War II ended in 1945, people around the world wondered how they could keep such widespread destruction from happening again. People paid special attention to the actions the Nazi government of Germany committed during the war. Under Nazi rule, six million people of Jewish ancestry were systematically killed. This was known as the Holocaust. In addition, the Nazis killed members of other minority groups in huge numbers, such as the Roma people and gays.

If it was self-evidently true to all that people deserve fair treatment because they are human beings who are created equal, the Nazis would not have acted as they did. Apparently, not everyone agreed that all people are equal. Thus, the idea of human rights became important to establish. Recall that these are natural rights that all people share simply because they are human, and not because they are a member of any particular political, religious, or ethnic group.

Following the end of the war, the European Advisory Commission—a group founded by the foreign ministers of the U.S., Britain, and Russia—set up the Charter of the International Military Tribunal. This group was established to address the acts committed by Germany and the other Axis powers during World War II. The Tribunal introduced the idea of “crimes against humanity” to the world. A crime against humanity is considered any act that causes human suffering and death on a large scale. In other words, the rights that people have because they are human beings should be greater than the legal rights that people have because they are citizens of a particular country.

The Tribunal determined that although German law had granted its citizens the legal right to persecute Jewish people, the rights Jewish people had because they were human were greater. Because of this reasoning, the Charter of the International Military Tribunal was able to hold German leaders accountable for their actions, even if they were following the laws of their own country. The work of the International Military Tribunal set the groundwork for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights consists of 30 small sections, called articles. Together, these individual articles describe civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights that all people share. Among these were rights against torture, to take part in government, and the ability to address human rights violations. Other articles emphasized people’s right to work, join trade unions, and participate freely in the cultural life of their communities.

One the most-discussed articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is Article 28. This text states, “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” This article suggests, scholars say, that the world of the future may be different from the world of today. In order to protect the rights of all people, there will need to be global cooperation and assistance to make that happen. It acknowledges that all people around the world are responsible for the well-being of their fellow Earth residents.

This idea is reflected in the words of Christine Lagarde, the President of European Central Bank. “Do we cooperate as a global family or do we confront each other across the trenches of insularity? Are we friends or are we foes?” she asks. The answer, she believes, is “a renewed commitment to international cooperation; to putting global interest above self-interest; to multilateralism.”

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