Universal Declaration of Human Rights: fit for the 21st century?

Eleanor Roosevelt, diplomat, activist and former first lady of the United States, holding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the day it was adopted on 10 December 1948. (Keystone/Science Photo Library/Library of Congress)

Given the geopolitical tensions and conflict across the world today, it may be difficult to believe that 74 years ago on 10 December 1948 countries from around the globe came together and almost unanimously agreed on an extensive list of fundamental rights that every human on the planet should enjoy.

The opening statement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) asserted that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. What followed were 30 articles outlining the rights and freedoms of every person that deserve universal protection to ensure a peaceful, free and just world.

With the end of the Second World War and the creation of the United Nations, the international community vowed to never allow the “barbarous acts which…outraged the conscience of mankind” to happen again. A drafting committee led by diplomat, activist and former first lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt, and composed of countries from across the globe worked for two years before it was finally adopted by the General Assembly in 1948.

The UDHR was the first universal document that marked out all human beings as free and equal, regardless of sex, race, religion, politics or other characteristics. The traumatic events of World War II, most notably the Holocaust in which 17 million people died including six million Jews, brought home the horrific consequences when leaders and nations violated this premise.

“We stand on the threshold of a great event, both in the life of the United Nations and of mankind,” Eleonor Roosevelt said in an address to member states the day before the declaration was brought to a vote. She said the international bill of rights would serve as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations”.

Not a single member state of the newly created UN opposed the declaration, although several countries abstained on the final vote – a far cry from the gridlock and politicised divisions at today’s Human Rights Council in Geneva and the Security Council in New York. Its passage by a vote of 48 to 0, with eight abstentions from countries including Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the Soviet Union, was met with a standing ovation from the UN General Assembly members gathered in the Palais de Chaillot, Paris.

‘All human beings are born free and equal’

The rights and freedoms set out in the declaration span civil, political, cultural, economic and social rights. The document affirms the right to life, privacy, education, health and to seek asylum, and forbids torture, slavery and arbitary arrest. It also asserts the right to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, equal pay and adequate housing.

Over seven decades later, virtually no country of the now 193-member strong UN could claim to have fulfilled all the rights listed in the UDHR, and many stand accused of a plethora of human rights violations executed against their peoples on a daily basis, often with apparent impunity.

Despite the declaration calling for an end to discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin or ideology, it remains rife in countries across the world, from persecution of Uyghur Muslims in China to systemic racism in the US. Stark inequalities between the Global North and South continue to widen, while we witness a rollback in reproductive rights, deepening divides in access to healthcare, and the advent of climate change threatening lives and livelihoods in the nations least responsible for global emissions.

Around one quarter of the entire global population now lives in conflict-affected areas, according to the UN, with war and violence depriving over two billion people of a plethora of human rights, from Ukraine and South Sudan to Syria and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, governments flagrantly deny those fleeing war and persecution the right to seek asylum, and crackdown on the rights of their citizens to free speech and protest.

With the world facing human rights challenges on so many fronts, some might be tempted to dismiss the declaration as idealistic or unrealistic – a non-legally binding document that nations may claim to adhere to on the international stage, but disregard entirely depending on their own political agendas.

However, defenders of the UDHR argue that to judge it on how often it is violated is to miss its point altogether.

“I'm not sure how much the document can be judged on whether it's always adhered to or not,” said Felix Kirchmeier, executive director of the Geneva Human Rights Platform. “That question comes up in human rights all the time, but it comes up much less in other domains. Nobody would ask whether health policy was still valuable now that we have the pandemic.”

“I think the declaration might be even more needed now than ever, because it allows us to really see these core values and the universal approach to them,” he added. “The proof of its relevance is the fact that despite all violations of human rights and despite all the attacks to the universal validity of human rights, the document itself is not being disputed in any serious way,” he continued. “So I think that's also proof of its strength.”

Despite not being legally-binding, the protection of the rights and freedoms the UDHR sets out has been incorporated into many national constitutions and domestic legal frameworks. It has inspired and paved the way for a wealth of other legally-binding human rights treaties that have been developed at global and regional levels.

“The inspiration that it still gives today is also very important,” explained Kirchmeier. “We saw that last year with the right to a healthy environment – a right that is not in the declaration, but that flows from it by the way it inspires and how it allows today's generation to adapt and to draw from its content for today's challenges.”

The language of human rights

The declaration also gave the world a benchmark for universal human rights standards. From the civil rights activists of the 1960s to environmental protesters of today, it provides a moral imperative against which countries, organisations, and individuals can be held to account.

“It's about the broader understanding of human rights,” said Kirchmeier. “That human rights is not just any international law that's dealt with by diplomats in Geneva, but that it's something that concerns everyone, that is our daily lives.”

Pedro José Martínez Esponda, an international lawyer and post-doctoral researcher at The Graduate Institute in Geneva, agreed. He argued that, despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges facing human rights today, the understanding of what those rights are that stems from the declaration is in itself extremely powerful.

“Discursively, human rights are much more powerful today than they were back in 1948,” explains Martínez. “In 1948, the people writing and signing the declaration were really ahead of their time. Back then, it wasn't common to speak of individual rights in that sense. And so they really took a step forward.

“Whereas today, everyone's at least familiar with the idea of human rights and most people do at some level have the conviction that they as individuals or members of a community have rights themselves, and that they should protect them.”

Ultimately, perhaps the greatest value of the declaration is that it gave universal human rights a language. Known as the most translated document in the world, available in 500 different languages, it provides a rhetoric that people from all corners of the world still use to this day when they stand up for their human rights, from Iran and Afghanistan to Myanmar and China.

“The declaration has kept being the main instrument that we all use to talk about human rights, and that's because its language and its wording is so powerful and because of the universal scope,” said Martínez.

Many of the solutions to the problems facing the world can still be found in human rights, Martínez argued, with the declaration acting as a universal map to a more peaceful, free and just world.

“I think the solution to many of the global problems that we have nowadays, even if they're problems that largely transcend the scope of the individual, is this idea that all individuals are equal in dignity,” said Martínez. “And that’s precisely what Article One of the declaration says, so that’s why it’s so powerful in many regards.

“The philosophical cornerstone of human rights is that we are all equal as individuals. And I think from there, you can find the answers that you need for global problems, as much as you can for individual problems. The same goes for climate change as it does for gender discrimination or racial discrimination or access to water, or any possible human rights topic.”

Martínez’s words echo those of Eleanor Roosevelt in her speech to the UN to mark the tenth anniversary of the declaration in 1958. Her words captured the reason why human rights are for every one of us, in all parts of our daily lives, as well as the world as a whole.

"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin?” she began. “In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works.

“Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."