“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” So begins the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Whether one reads it in in Abkhaz, Zulu or any language in between, the declaration represents the common heritage of all humanity.
It is fitting that thinkers from every continent helped craft this fundamental statement of human rights, and fitting also that Human Rights Day is December 10, the date when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the declaration.
How do you define human rights?
At the United Nations’ very first session, in 1945, a Panamanian, Ricardo Alfaro, first proposed a bill of international human rights. The new U.N. Commission on Human Rights was tasked with drafting one. It wasn’t a small task. To succeed, a document needed both to capture the essence of what we mean by “human rights” and to secure the approval of the diverse international community. Former U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, chairwoman of the commission, was unfazed by these challenges. “We make our own history,” she said. “It is more intelligent to hope than not to hope, to try rather than not to try.”
An all-star team of international diplomats set to work. Constitutions of all U.N. members and other documents were discussed, debated and scrutinized. Committee member Charles H. Malik of Lebanon was a strong proponent of natural rights. China’s Zhang Pengjun contributed a Confucian outlook. Lawyers John Humphrey from Canada and René Cassin of France drafted the initial text.
Delegates from all parts of the world community refined the document. Latin American delegates argued for inclusion of socioeconomic rights. Egypt’s delegation strengthened the statement on universality. And India, the Dominican Republic and Denmark fought to recognize the rights of women.
The discussions continued over 80-plus sessions. More than 160 amendments were debated. Finally, consensus was achieved.
“Thousands of minds and hands have helped in its formation,” said Malik as he introduced the declaration for a final vote at the U.N. General Assembly, a hush falling over the gathered diplomats, press and onlookers.
In the end, 48 nations voted to adopt the declaration and none voted against. In its 30 articles are the promise of fundamental economic, social, political, cultural and civic rights and the promise of a life free from want and fear.
The Universal Declaration’s enduring legacy
The Declaration’s impact has been profound. It forms the bedrock of international human rights law. Constitutions in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Haiti, Indonesia and Jordan, among others, incorporate its language.
Perhaps more importantly, the declaration continues to inspire men and women everywhere. Fifty years after its adoption, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela reflected: “For those who had to fight for their emancipation … the Universal Declaration of Human Rights served as the vindication of the justice of our cause.”
Human rights champions from Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma to Shirin Ebadi of Iran have cited the declaration as both a guide and a call to action. Seventy years after its adoption, the declaration remains the world’s pre-eminent statement of the rights that we all share.