Universal Declaration of Human Rights

From New World Encyclopedia

Eleanor Roosevelt with the Spanish version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (abbreviated UDHR) is a foundational document of modern international human rights law. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly December 10, 1948, at Palais de Chaillot, Paris. It consists of 30 articles which outline the standards of the United Nations on the human rights guaranteed to all people. Although the Declaration is non-binding, it has proved influential since its passage and many of its articles have been adopted into important international treaties as well as constitutions of nations. Numerous Non-Governmental organizations (NGOs), have arisen dedicated to one or more articles listed in the Declaration.

Eleanor Roosevelt, first chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), which drafted the Declaration, said, "It is not a treaty...It may well become the international Magna Carta..."[1]

The Declaration guarantees many important and fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, and the rule of law, as well as the right to leave one's country, to receive an education, to participate in government, to work, and to a decent standard of living and health care. It also affirms that everyone shall be free from slavery, gender inequality, racial discrimination, and exploitation. However, the Declaration also stipulates that these rights must be exercised according to the "just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society." The "public order" clause has often been used by authoritarian governments to abrogate some the rights guaranteed in other articles.


The new Palais de Chaillot, site of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Prior to the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, several countries had adopted declarations of human rights. Well known examples include the Bill of Rights in the United States, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in France. However, neither of these is as detailed and far-reaching as the UNDR.

After the founding of the United Nations and considering the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during World War II, a consensus within the world community soon emerged that the United Nations Charter did not sufficiently define the rights that it referenced. A universal declaration that specified the rights of individuals was deemed necessary. Canadian human rights expert John Peters Humphrey was called upon by the UN Secretary to work on the project and became the Declaration's principal drafter. Humphrey was assisted by Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States, Jacques Maritain and René Cassin of France, Charles Malik of Lebanon, and P. C. Chang of the Republic of China, among others.

To achieve a document acceptable to all parties in the United Nations, however, was no easy task. The philosophy of the United States, rooted in ideas of innate human rights, was offensive to the Soviet Union, which objected to the strong wording of several provisions guaranteeing individual rights. Saudi Arabia objected to the stipulation in Article 18 of the right to change one's religion, as well as to the wording of articles guaranteeing women's rights which it found offensive to Islamic tradition. South Africa could not agree to guarantees of racial equality which flew in the face of its own system of apartheid. Some capitalist countries were concerned about guarantees of economic rights that might conflict with the principles of a free market economy.

Did you know?
Human Rights Day is celebrated annually across the world on December 10, the anniversary of the adoption of The Declaration of Human Rights

Nevertheless, the proclamation was ratified during the General Assembly on December 10, 1948, by a vote of 48 in favor, zero against, and eight abstentions (from Soviet Bloc states, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia).[2] Securing abstentions from these nations (rather than opposing votes) would have been impossible were it not for the Declaration's non-binding status. However, as a result, the Declaration has been criticized for not having "teeth." Moreover the "public order" clause of Article 29 has often been used by totalitarian states to abrogate the rights guaranteed in other articles.

The Guinness Book of Records describes the UDHR as the "Most Translated Document" in the world, having been translated into 370 languages and dialects by 2010.[3]

The date of the Declaration's adoption, December 10, is now celebrated annually as international Human Rights Day.

Structure and legal implications

UN General Assembly in New York.

The document is laid out in the civil law tradition, including a preamble followed by 30 articles. Articles 3-21 deal with civil and political rights, while Articles 22-27 outline economic, social, and cultural rights. (See text for details.) Although it is non-binding on UN members, the Declaration forms part of customary international law and is a powerful tool in applying diplomatic, political, and moral pressure on governments that violate any of its articles.

The 1968, United Nations International Conference on Human Rights decided the UDHR "constitutes an obligation for the members of the international community" to all persons. The declaration has also served as the foundation for several other UN human rights covenants including: the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment and Punishment, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the 1997 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The Declaration continues to be widely cited by academics, advocates, and constitutional courts. The wording of several of the Declaration's specific articles was also adopted into the constitutions of several counties. It has also been an important source in the development of the European Union's standards for human rights legislation. Finally, numerous Non-Governmental Organizations have dedicated themselves to one or more of the Declaration's articles.

Text of the UNDR



Whereas 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,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, 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.

The Articles

Article 1

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.

Article 4

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair, and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11

1. Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

2. No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.

2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14

1. Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

2. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15

1. Everyone has the right to a nationality.

2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16

1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17

1. Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

2. No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21

1. Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

2. Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

3. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23

1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

2. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

3. Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25

1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

2. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26

1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27

1. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29

1. Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

2. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

3. These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

Praise and Criticism


  • In a speech on October 5, 1995, Pope John Paul II called the UDHR "one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time."
  • An official statement of the European Union on December 10, 2003, said: "Humanity has made extraordinary progress in the promotion and protection of human rights thanks to the creative force generated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, undoubtedly one of the most influential documents in history. It is a remarkable document, full of idealism but also of determination to learn lessons from the past and not to repeat the same mistakes. Most importantly, it placed human rights at the center of the framework of principles and obligations shaping relations within the international community."
  • US President Ronald Reagan stated: "For people of good will around the world, that document is more than just words: It's a global testament of humanity, a standard by which any humble person on Earth can stand in judgment of any government on Earth." (US Department of State Bulletin, March 1989)


  • Marxist-Leninist states often criticized the use of the UDHR to affirm absolutely such rights as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and the freedom to leave one's country. In the ideology of the former Soviet Union, these rights must be subordinated to the agenda of the Soviet state to achieve socialism. Today, China, now a member of the UN, routinely affirms that human rights are a matter of its internal affairs and defends its record on civil and political rights on the grounds that its critics, such as the United States, allegedly violate the Declaration's articles guaranteeing freedom from racial discrimination and other social injustices.
  • Predominantly Muslim countries, such as Sudan, Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, have criticized the UNDR for its perceived failure to take into account the cultural and religious context of non-Western countries. The rights of women, freedom of speech to criticize Islam, and the right of Muslims to change their religion are particular sticking points for Islamic states. For example, in 1981, the Iranian representative to the United Nations, Said Rajaie-Khorassani, said that the UDHR was "a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition," which could not be implemented by Muslims without trespassing the Islamic law.[4]
  • The Unites States has sometimes objected to UN attempts to impose its social and cultural "rights" standards on the US. Jeane Kirkpatrick, then U.S. ambassador to UN, argued that certain supposed UDHR economic rights are not true human rights, for they must be provided by others through forced extraction,[5] Kirkpatrick called this aspect of the Declaration "a letter to Santa Claus,"[6] saying, "Neither nature, experience, nor probability informs these lists of 'entitlements', which are subject to no constraints except those of the mind and appetite of their authors."[7] The US has also had objections to UN efforts to define "freedom from torture"—too narrowly in the US view.
  • A widespread criticism of the Declaration is that its non-binding nature makes it a document with no power to enforce its articles. Member states of the UN have routinely disregarded its articles and the UN has often been unwilling or unable to impose meaningful sanctions against the worst violators of the Declaration.

Related documents

National human rights documents

The following national documents may be seen as historical precursors to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

International human rights law

The following international documents may be seen as either directly or indirectly derivative of the UDHR.


  1. Eleanor Roosevelt: Address to the United Nations General Assembly www.americanrhetoric.com, December 9, 1948, in Paris, France. Retrieved July 6, 2020.
  2. History of the Document Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations.
  3. A new world record: Universal Declaration in 370 languages News and Events, United Nations. Retrieved July 6, 2020.
  4. David Littman, "Universal Human Rights and Human Rights in Islam," Midstream, February/March 1999.
  5. Glenn Woiceshyn, United Nations Declaration of Human Rights Destroys Individual Rights Capitalism Magazine, December 11, 1998. Retrieved July 6, 2020.
  6. Pierre Hazan, What's the Point of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), December 16, 2008. Retrieved July 6, 2020.
  7. Noak Chomsky, Human Rights in the New Millennium Lecture given at London School of Economics and Political Science, October 29, 2009. Retrieved July 6, 2020.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Buergenthal, Thomas, et al. International Human Rights in a Nutshell. West Publishing Company; 3rd edition, 2002. ISBN 978-0314260147
  • Glendon, Mary Ann. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition, 2002. ISBN 978-0375760464
  • Korey, William. NGO's and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "A Curious Grapevine". Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. ISBN 978-0312238865
  • Littman, David. "Universal Human Rights and Human Rights in Islam." Midstream February/March 1999.
  • Morsink, Johannes. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0812217476
  • Roosevelt, Eleanor. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (UDHR text in six languages.) Applewood Books, 2000. ISBN 978-1557094551
  • Steiner, Henry and Philip Alston. International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals. Oxford University Press; 2nd edition, 2000. ISBN 978-0198298496

External links

All links retrieved May 3, 2023.


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