Do You Know your Human Rights?

In the United States, we are familiar with the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to represent our rights as citizens. However, can you name your “universal human rights” as easily as your constitutional “inalienable” rights? While the term “human rights” sounds important, it’s difficult to say what “human rights” even are and how they actually protect us. 

Your Different Rights

As we learn about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), we’ll develop our understanding of what “human rights” actually are, and why we need them. 

“Universal” and “inalienable” rights have different connotations. “Inalienable” means rights we are born with, and our governing bodies should protect them.  The “universal” in the UDHR means rights that apply to everyone, everywhere, regardless of race, nationality, gender, or ethnicity. Because of the persecution of minority ethnic groups during World War II, the UDHR directly addressed issues like freedom of religion, arbitrary forced detention, and cruel or unusual punishment. 

Definition of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The UDHR itself is a customary document and is legally non-binding. The UDHR is meant to be an international mutual agreement to respect the universal dignity of human life. However, the UDHR is the foundation for the UN’s legally binding International Bill of Human Rights (1976), which includes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. 

History of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on December 10th, 1948 in reaction to the atrocities committed during World War II. Created by the United Nations General Assembly, the drafting committee was led by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first Chairperson of the Commission of Human Rights and played an integral part in creating the UDHR. 

The UDHR contains 30 articles that define, according to its preamble, the “inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” The UDHR aims to generate international social progress for all citizens by acknowledging a universal standard. The UDHR is universally considered a foundational document for all future major human rights conventions, and it demonstrates the importance of why we need to internationally recognize the dignity of each human life. 

The UDHR is an important basis for other major human rights conventions and treaties like the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, 1979).  While the UDHR served as the foundation for many human rights documents, it does not directly address every social issue. Issues like LGBTQIA rights and climate change were not specified in the UDHR, partly because they were not well-recognized issues in 1948. 

There are several criticisms of the UDHR  regarding both its content and effectiveness. Because the UDHR is legally non-binding, there is minimal accountability in its enforcement. Other critiques of the UDHR are that it emphasizes civil and political rights more than socio-cultural rights and individual rights over group rights. The United Nations only had 50 member states at the time the UDHR was written compared to 193 today. The fact that it was written by representatives of mostly western nations calls into question the true “universality” of the document. 

Being critical of the conception of the UDHR lends itself to being critical of the execution of it as well. Consider the United State’s segregation and Jim Crow institutions, which persisted well after the signing of the UDHR. These laws violated the universal right of equal legal protection without discrimination based on race.  A more recent example is the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar by Myanmar’s government. The military attack on the Rohingya people has caused a refugee crisis in Southeast Asia. Myanmar’s government has violated the Rohingya people’s human rights by denying them citizenship and equal protection based on their ethnicity. 

Why Care?

The UDHR was created in a post-WWII world that needed more international accountability than ever before.  Reflecting on historic events of the 1930s-40s, major human rights violations were not only perpetrated but normalized by both governments and individuals. The UDHR sought to ask: how can we prevent similar events from happening again? And if we cannot, how do we hold the perpetrators accountable on an international scale? The first step to ending persecution is by acknowledging the universal rights of every living person. 

We do not live in 1948, but we can see the UDHR in every modern human rights treaty and law. The issues of 1948 are still important, but the world continues to become conscious of new injustices that impact a diverse variety of communities. Our approach to human rights continues to evolve as, unfortunately, so do human rights violations. However, by knowing our rights as an international community, we can begin to hold those responsible accountable. By engaging with human rights, and understanding them, we are more actively engaging with our responsibilities as global citizens. As an individual in the United States, you can vote or advocate for politicians who can put international pressure on governments or individuals committing human rights violations. There are lots of ways to be an activist for human rights. Some organizations you can get involved with include Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, but there are many more. 

    Learn More

    Learn More

    1. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations. 1948. https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
    2. “Fact Sheet No.2 (Rev.1), The International Bill of Human Rights.” OHCHR.org. United Nations Human Rights: Office of the High Commissioner, 1996. https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/FactSheet2Rev.1en.pdf
    3. “Human Rights.” United Nations: Global Issues https://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/human-rights/ 
    4. “Convention on the Rights of the Child.” United Nations. 1989. https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx
    5. “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.” United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. 1979.  https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/text/econvention.htm

    Think Further

    Think Further

    1. What do you think the UDHR would look like if it was written now, rather than in 1948?
    2. Do you think the United States does a good job protecting Universal Human Rights? Why or why not? Give examples. 
    3. If the UDHR was never created, do you think countries would naturally uphold the human rights outlined in the UDHR? 

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