In 1945, the world reached a tipping point. After two World Wars, the Holocaust, the first nuclear bombs, and a massive refugee crisis, something needed to be done. 51 countries – including power players like the United States, France, the UK, and the Soviet Union – came together to form the UN. Three years later in 1948, most of the UN ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s been over seven decades and the 30-article document remains a source of controversy and inspiration. Why is it so important?
Origin story: how the UDHR came to be
President Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt as a UN delegate. In 1946, she became chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights. Hansa Mehta of India was the only other woman on the commission. She suggested opening the declaration with “all human beings are born free and equal” as opposed to “all men.” The commission’s task? Create a roadmap for global human rights. This was no simple feat. While the concept of human rights found inspiration in philosophy and documents like the Magna Carta, the UN was attempting something on a scope and scale never before seen. Establishing the universality of human rights was the commission’s biggest accomplishment. Human rights needed to apply to all humans, regardless of their gender, race, religion, nationality, or culture. No one needs to earn human rights; they are born with them.
Immediately, there was disagreement among the UN states. The USSR disliked how the declaration favored individual rights over collective rights. South Africa, which at the time had apartheid, worried that the declaration would disrupt their racial political system. Saudi Arabia felt that the declaration’s stance on religious rights violated Islamic law and disregarded cultural differences. Ultimately, eight countries abstained from the final vote on the UDHR: South Africa, Saudi Arabia, the five Soviet bloc states, and the Soviet Union.
What was the UDHR’s impact?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the first step toward universal human rights. Its purpose was always to simply present the world with a blueprint; the 30 articles are not legally binding. What has the world built from this blueprint? Using the UDHR as a guide, there are now more than 80 international treaties, declarations, conventions, bills, and constitutional provisions. One key example is the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), a convention with 182 parties bound to it. This convention has its origins in 1960 following reports of antisemitism throughout the world. These incidents were recognized as violations of the UDHR. The convention includes a definition of “racial discrimination,” a condemnation of apartheid, a list of standards that parties must uphold, and an individual complaints mechanism. The process took a while, so ICERD wasn’t officially adopted until 1965.
One year later in 1966, the UN adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Both of these contain legally-binding elements, and together with the UDHR, they make up the International Bill of Human Rights. The UDHR itself may not be enforceable, but without it, would there be any legally-binding treaties and conventions? It’s hard to say.
Flawed, but essential: why the UDHR still matters
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights faced criticism when it was written. This hasn’t changed, though the nature of the criticism has evolved over time. Some believe it’s overrated or overhyped because no country is required to obey its standards. It’s purely aspirational. While countries may claim the UDHR as their blueprint, there’s no mechanism to hold them accountable. That’s where treaties and conventions come in, but even those have problems because many countries simply don’t report to the UN. They may say one thing and then do another. Does this mean the Declaration is a failure? Far from it.
We can acknowledge that the enforcement of human rights law has a long way to go while still recognizing the importance of the UDHR’s purpose. It wasn’t created to serve as the pinnacle of human rights; it’s the scaffolding. It may have been inspired by historical artifacts like the Cyrus Cylinder and the Magna Carta, but the Declaration represents the first global effort to protect human rights. Within the course of human history, this effort is still fairly young. Turning those 30 articles from concepts into reality isn’t easy, but even with challenges like violent resistance and oppression, the world has achieved significant human rights victories. In times of crisis (wars, pandemics, climate change), the world must remember the message of the Universal Declaration: we cannot have progress and peace without human rights.