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The Development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Eleanor Roosevelt Holding a Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Photo: Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of United Nations Human Rights Commission, holds a Universal Declaration of Human Rights poster in French in November 1949 at the United Nations in New York. (Courtesy of United Nations Photo)

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a document that is grouped with some of the all-time leading rights documents in world history, including the Magna Carta (1215), the U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776), and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789).

The Second World War had just ended. In the late 1940s, nations were beginning their recovery from its horrors and atrocities. A significant part of that included founding the United Nations (UN), which in turn produced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “as a road map for guaranteeing the rights of every individual everywhere,” according to the UN’s own historical account.

Eighteen representatives from across the globe, diverse politically, culturally, and religiously, composed the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, which oversaw drafting the UDHR. Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, chaired the drafting committee. Committee members included Rene Cassin of France, Charles Malik of Lebanon, William Hodgson of Australia, and John Humphrey of Canada.

It took less than two years to compose the entire text of the UDHR, with more than 50 UN member states participating in the drafting. The UN General Assembly adopted the final version on December 10, 1948. Support for the UDHR was strong. Of the then 58 UN member states, 48 voted for adoption, 8 abstained and two failed to vote or abstain.

Hernan Santa Cruz of Chile, a drafting committee member, wrote:

“I perceived clearly that I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing—which gave rise to the inalienable right to live free from want and oppression and to fully develop one’s personality. In the Great Hall . . . there was an atmosphere of genuine solidarity and brotherhood among men and women from all latitudes, the like of which I have not seen again in any international meeting.”

The Declaration consists of 30 articles that affirm individual rights that, although not legally binding, have been incorporated into the constitutions of most of the more than 185 nations that now belong to the UN. The UDHR has also come to be reflected in international treaties, regional human rights instruments, and other measures.

Moreover, the UDHR has played a major role in shifting how a government treats its citizens, from being a domestic concern to an international one. As its Preamble states: “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”

This article was provided by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Read more about the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.