UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights


By: United Nations General Assembly

Date: December 10, 1948

Source: United Nations General Assembly. "UN Declaration of Human Rights. General Assembly Resolution 217 A (III). December 10, 1948.

About the Author: The phrase "United Nations" was used during World War II (1939–1945) to describe the dozens of nations allied together to fight Germany and Japan, most notably including China, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States of America. These allies decided to develop a new organization to facilitate international cooperation and help prevent future wars. It would replace the League of Nations, which had failed to prevent World War II. They called it the United Nations (UN). The UN Charter was ratified on October 24, 1945. In the years since the UN has served as a forum for international negotiation and cooperation on many issues, including international security, human rights, trade and economics, and the environment.


By the end of World War II (1938–1945), the issue of human rights was central to the creation of an international organization that would include member states from around the globe. The League of Nations, the brainchild of United States President Woodrow Wilson, was founded in 1919 as an international organization that would help to prevent aggression, provide a mediator between nations, and help to maintain peace. When World War II began and Axis Powers invaded parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, the League of nation's efficacy lost credibility, and a new international organization emerged: the United Nations.

One of the primary topics built into the United Nations charter in 1945 was human rights; by 1946 the UN created the UN Commission on Human Rights, an independent commission under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Council. The genocide of World War II, Hitler's eugenics programs, and issues with refugees, sexual slavery in Asia, and other human rights concerns sparked international conversations about the definition of human rights, cultural attitudes toward such definitions, and simple questions of humanity. The United Nations charter had outlined the principles of human rights in its charter, but member nations and UN officials felt a need to clarify those principles by providing specific definitions of what universal human rights constituted.

The primary writer of the Declaration of Human Rights was Canadian John Humphrey, a professor of law at McGill University. His efforts were joined by Rene Cassin of France, Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States, Charles Malik of Lebanon, and P.C. Chang of China, providing involvement from member nations in North America, Asia, the Middle East, and Western Europe.

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly unveiled the Declaration of Human Rights as a common goal for all member states.


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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed a vote in the General Assembly with forty-eight votes for, and eight abstentions. Articles 3 and 25 of the Declaration of Human Rights address the most basic rights; article three states that "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person," an echo of the United States Declaration of Independence and France's Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Article twenty-five addresses basic living conditions and medical care as universal human rights: "(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection." By enumerating and describing what should be basic rights for all human beings, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights created an ideal to which governments were supposed to aspire.

The document's simple language is meant to be accessible for all readers, and the Universal Declaration of Human rights has been translated into more than three hundred languages and dialects. The Declaration is not a legally binding contract for UN member nations, but governments are expected to treat it as a strong guideline in crafting internal human rights policy and law.

The Declaration is one of three documents that together constitute the International Bill of Rights. The other two documents, the Optional Protocol and the International Covenants on Human Rights, were adopted in 1976. The Optional Protocol and the Covenants expand on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and provide member nations with further clarity in creating treaties and laws that respect the universal rights of human beings.

In 1968, at the UN International Conference on Human Rights, the members agreed that following the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an obligation for all member nations, to ensure fair treatment of all peoples worldwide, within their own borders and in other countries as well.

Many UN documents addressing the issue of rights, such as the 1952 Convention on the Political Rights of Women and the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief are based on the principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the 1948 Declaration acts as a compass for international law and relations regarding human rights.



Donnelly, Jack. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Ishay, Micheline. The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era. University of California Press, 2004.

Steiner, Henry and Philip Alston. International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals. Oxford University Press, U.S.A., 2000.

Web sites

United Nations. "Human Rights." 〈http://www.un.org/rights/〉 (accessed May 7, 2006).