Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is an international document adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). It establishes the rights and freedoms of all members of the human race.

It was accepted by the UNGA as per Resolution 217 during the session on December 10, 1948. Among the United Nations members at the time, 48 voted in favour, none against, 8 abstained and 2 did not vote.

The UDHR has played a significant role in the history of human rights. Its significance as well as other facts will be highlighted in detail in this article. The information will be useful in the IAS Exam.

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Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Overview

  • The UDHR consists of 30 articles detailing an individual’s “basic rights and fundamental freedoms”. It is universally applicable for all human beings of varying race, religions and nationality.
  • It directly inspired the development of international human rights law, and was the first step in the formulation of the International Bill of Human Rights, which was completed in 1966 and came into force in 1976.
  • Even though the Universal Human Rights Declaration is not legally binding, its contents has been elaborated and incorporated into subsequent international treaties, regional human rights and instruments and in the legal codes of various countries
  • At least one of the 9 binding treaties of the UDHR has been ratified by all 193 member states of the United Nations, with the majority ratifying four or more.

History of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The United Nations was founded by 51 countries in October 1945, two months after World War II ended. Two world wars, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a global refugee crisis had led to fears of a destructive World War II.

The UN was founded to avoid such a disaster, as well as to address human rights. Out of all the people who wanted such notions to become a reality, it was Eleanor Roosevelt – the wife of the late United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt – who would play a crucial role in the formulation of the Universal Human Rights Declaration

President Harry Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to the US delegation to the United Nations in 1945. She was well known throughout the world as a champion of poverty allegations and universal civil rights. It was in April 1946, after becoming chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, that she took on the task of drafting a human rights declaration for the world.

Eleanor’s ideals about human rights and desire for global peace were influenced by her experiences of both the world wars where she had worked with shell-shocked soldiers undergoing psychological treatments during World War I while she had visited the devastated cities of Europe during the second world war.

Drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was not at all an easy task. For starters:

  1. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had their own definition of human or to put it simply could not agree on what human rights were.
  2. Many conservative US politicians were not fond of supporting the economic and social rights of the UDHR because in their eyes such rights were ‘communist’ in their nature and scope.

However, Elanor with her charm and diplomacy managed to gather enough support for the UDHR to be passed in a resolution.

Hansa Mehta, a UN delegate from the newly independent country of India and the only other woman on the Commission on Human Rights was crucial in shaping the declaration. It was she who changed the original declaration’s first article from “All men are born free and equal” to “All human beings are born free and equal”.

Even though the declaration isn’t binding or enforceable. It would serve as a model for legislation in many countries.

After the draft was presented to the United Nations General Assembly, it was adopted on December 10, 1946.

December 10, the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration, is celebrated annually as World Human Rights Day or International Human Rights Day.

Structure of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The structure of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was influenced by a set of laws formulated by Napoléon Bonaparte centuries before, collectively known as the Code Napoléon.

Its final structure took form in the second draft prepared by French jurist René Cassin, who worked on the initial draft prepared by Canadian legal scholar John Peters Humphrey.

The Declaration consists of the following:

The preamble gives details about the social and historical reasons that led to the formation of the UDHR.

It contains a total of 30 articles:

Universal Declaration of Human Rights – UPSC Notes
Articles 1 – 2 The basic concepts of dignity, liberty and equality are established.
Articles 3 – 5 Details of individual rights, such as the right to life and prohibition of slavery are explained in detail.
Articles 6 – 11 Refers to the fundamental rights as well as the remedies for their violation. 
Articles 12 – 17 Set forth the rights of the individual towards the community, including freedom of movement and residence within each state, the right of property and the right to a nationality.
Articles 18 – 21 These sets of articles refer to the rights of the individual towards the community, including freedom of movement, thought, opinion, expression, religion, peaceful association and ideas through any media.
Articles 22 – 27 Sanctions an individual’s economic, social and cultural rights including healthcare. It also upholds the right to a better standard of living and makes a special mention of care given to motherhood or childhood.
Articles 28 – 30 It establishes the general means of exercising these rights, the areas in which the rights of the individual cannot be applied.

Significance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

  • The UDHR is widely regarded as a groundbreaking document that provides a comprehensive and universal set of principles in a secular, apolitical document that is beyond cultural, religious and political ideologies The Declaration was the first instrument of international law to use the phrase “rule of law”, thereby establishing the principle that all members of all societies are equally bound by the law regardless of the jurisdiction or political system.
  • In International law, a declaration is different from a treaty in the sense that it generally states aspiration or understanding among the parties, rather than binding obligations. For this reason, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a fundamental constitutive document of the United Nations and, by extension, all 193 parties of the UN Charter.

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