What is the Declaration of Human Rights, and Why is it So Important?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights turned 70 this December, but what does the Declaration do, and why is it still important today?

How did the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Come About?

The Declaration was a direct reaction to the horrors of World War II and the atrocities  that the Nazis committed against the Jewish people. International leaders under the banner of the United Nations forged ahead with a document they hoped would provide every person in the world with a means of recourse should they find their liberty or even their lives under threat from political or nationalistic forces.

The UN adopted the declaration on December 10, 1948, with a unanimous 48-0 vote and eight abstentions. It was the first time in modern history where the world drew a line under the horrors of a global war and said that this should never happen again.

Among signatory nations were the United States, the United Kingdom, most of what we now recognize as Europe, and various Latin American, Middle Eastern and African nations. Among those to abstain were the USSR, Poland, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

The Declaration’s purpose is neatly summarized in the preamble to the text itself, saying: “Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”

It allows for independent bodies to hold world governments to account and, if need be, to push enforcement of human rights standards through trade and diplomatic sanctions.

As such, the Declaration contains a number of articles derived and collated from human rights standards across the world. They seek to create a blueprint for a just and fair world and include stipulations like Article 3 “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person,” and Article 18, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…”.

How has the Universal Declaration Helped Us?

One of the clearest examples of how the Declaration has helped to shape human rights standards comes from South Africa.

In the same year that the Declaration was signed, South Africa elected the Apartheid Nationalist Party government. The contrast was stark, and it is believed that the world’s statement on fundamental rights helped galvanize protest against Apartheid. Those protests led to key national developments, for example direct action in the form of boycotts, strikes and civil disobedience. Over half a century later, the Universal Declaration would be cited again in the writing of the new South African Constitution.

More generally, the aspirational language found in the Declaration has been the benchmark for several international agreements. Most recently, various Articles in the Declaration helped form the basis of the Paris Agreement on climate change, like the right to breathe clean air and the right to have one’s home and livelihood safeguarded against climate change.

Is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights perfect? No, but it does have room to grow.

When the document was founded, the United States was inflicting harm upon its citizens via Jim Crow laws in the South. The US and many areas of the world were also subordinating women via various financial, psychological and legal mechanisms. Some of these problems continue today, despite the Declaration manifestly protecting these groups.

As PRI points out, while the US signed the Declaration, it had reservations at the time that the its standards would force it to act in the South.

The US still has an uneasy relationship with the UN. President Donald Trump said in September that the US will “never surrender” its sovereignty to bodies like the International Criminal Court, which seeks to enforce the Declaration’s standards. The Court, in this case, has hinted it may prosecute human rights violations that American forces committed in Afghanistan.

LGBT rights are another example. International recognition of LGBT rights in the modern world was only just starting to consolidate as a phenomena. There is no explicit mention of LGBT people in the Declaration, and in many if not all signatory states, being LGBT was criminalized. Because of that, anti-LGBT groups have used certain Articles against the recognition of LGBT rights. They claim that this omission means that these rights are “extra” rights, even though the right to a private life is fundamentally guaranteed.

The Declaration puts great stock in the male and female family unit. For example, Article 16 section 3 says, “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”. As a result, the Right has claimed that same-gender couples could “harm” children and deprive them of the right to a mother and father.

While other Articles can and have been used to protect LGBT people (the Right to Assembly, the Right to Protection from the Law, etc.), these omissions have created problems.

And yet, the Universal Declaration is seen by many as a “living” document. Like the US constitution, the argument goes that its framers were creating something of a blueprint on which we could build a more fair and just global society. Interpreting the Universal Declaration to protect freedoms that were not recognized in its original remit remains a key part of its founding principles.

Effectively, the Declaration honors freedom, and in that freedom there is room for interpretation and growth.

Looking at the state of the world today, with famine in places like Yemen, the deep woes of Syria and the way Europe and the US have been hostile to asylum cases, we might be tempted to say that the Universal Declaration is being ignored. To some extent that is true, but the agreement is something that has helped minorities have a voice on the largest of stages, and it contains within it the hope for a world that lives up to ideals founded at one of the darkest points in modern history.

At 70 years old, the Declaration may be looking a little torn around the edges, but it is still with us, and now more than ever it remains a beacon for the world we could have.

Photo credit: Getty Images.


Kayla C
Kayla Coteabout a month ago

So important, the creation of this bill was such a huge step. We still have a long way to go, but I have faith that there is enough good in the world to make a significant impact

Vincent T
Vincent T1 months ago

Thank you

Amparo Fabiana C
Amparo Fabiana C2 months ago

We must protect the weak and needy. All humans are important.

Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson3 months ago

Thank you.

Leo C
Leo Custer3 months ago

Thank you for posting!

Janis K
Janis K3 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

hELEN hEARFIELD3 months ago


Anna R
Anna R3 months ago

thanks for sharing

Ben O
Ben O3 months ago

Human rights for ALL -NO exceptions, thanks very much!

Dr. Jan Hill
Dr. Jan H3 months ago