In 1946, having just staggered out from under a second world war, the nations of planet Earth took a good, long look in the mirror.
They didn't like what they saw.
No surprise there. All of the atrocities that had been committed in the previous few years in the name of national interest—illegal detentions, the slaughter of civilians, crackdowns on political dissent, and, of course, the horrors of the Holocaust—had become painfully clear.
It was not a pretty picture.
The brand-new United Nations, formed in 1945 to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again, decided that something had to be done. So in 1946, they formed a committee—there's always a committee—to study the matter. This one was chaired by former U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1948, the committee, after many drafts (of course), issued a document: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, laying out in great detail what the U.N. expected from its member states in the way of, well, human rights.
By making a laundry list of universal, inalienable rights—things that everyone, everywhere should be entitled to—this document proclaimed a global community with shared humanitarian values. According to the document, it doesn't matter what race or nationality you are, what gender you are, or what religion you practice—if you're a human being, you have certain rights. More importantly, it declares that the nations of the world—represented by the U.N.—recognize these rights. Even if you're living in a country where the government denies people their human rights, the international community still believes that you have them.
So what made it onto the list? The 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights span quite a bit of territory and include:
Given how hard it is to get countries to agree on anything, the UDHR was a borderline miracle of international politics. Still, with such a broad scope, there was bound to be a little dissension about the particulars. When it came time to adopt the UDHR in the United Nations General Assembly, several countries abstained from the vote, claiming that the declaration was biased toward Western values and didn't take into account important cultural or religious differences among nations.
Some people believed that the UDHR was a little too kumbaya: all idealistic notions of human rights and whirled peas with no possible way of enforcing them. Say what you want about prohibiting torture, but some countries are gonna do it anyway. Plus, 10 minutes of reading the news will show you that all those nice demands included in the declaration sure aren't making the world a perfect place.
Still, despite its detractors, the declaration has turned out to be one of the most influential and lasting achievements of the United Nations. It was designed to be a "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations" (Preamble.8). The UDHR has influenced subsequent international agreements, and dozens of countries, from Portugal to Somalia, explicitly reference the UDHR in their national constitutions (source). It's unprecedented in human history for so many different nations to agree (in theory, at least) on how to treat their people—and it happened in 1948, when we still thought smoking was okay for you.
Kumbaya? Maybe, maybe not. But it was a start.
In many countries, people enjoy the rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights without even being aware of it. Seriously, when was the last time you were convicted of a crime without a trial, forced into an arranged marriage, or denied the ability to move to a new place? (Your parents refusing to buy you a condo in Malibu doesn't count.)
Sometimes it's easy to take your rights for granted. That doesn't mean everyone has the same luxury. Serious human rights violations and atrocities still happen all over the world, including in the United States. For your consideration:
We know what you're thinking: what good is the UDHR if these things are still going on? But just because human rights violations still happen doesn't mean the declaration isn't effective. In monarchy-dominated Europe before World War I and under fascist regimes during World War II, violations of human rights didn't just happen—they were the norm.
The declaration created a common understanding that these things are not the norm; they're morally unacceptable. The point of the text is to declare (did you notice that word in the title?) common values, but it's up to governments and people—this means you—to figure out how to make it happen.
United Nations—"What We Do"
This page has everything you need to know about the U.N.'s human rights division, from its history to modern peacekeeping missions.
Need a quick refresher on the history of the United Nations? This timeline takes you from its early formation during World War II up to the present.
Illustrated Full Text
A copy of the full Universal Declaration of Human Rights with Diary of a Wimpy Kid-looking pictures. Great for the visual learners out there.
American Experience: Eleanor Roosevelt
Part of a series of PBS biographies, this documentary takes a close look at the life of the former first lady, from her accomplishments to her critics.
Want another opinion? Documentary filmmakers take a critical look at the U.N.'s efforts to promote human rights, focusing on places where the organization has failed. It's not hard to find them, unfortunately.
The Guardian Blog
In 2008, on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Guardian published an extensive series of articles commemorating the document and analyzing its continuing relevance.
The New York Times Archive
Check out what the newspaperhad to say back in 1948, on the day the UDHR was adopted.
Eleanor Roosevelt's Speech
Mrs. Roosevelt addressed the U.N.'s General Assembly on the day that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted.
Human Rights in the Future
Everyone loves a good TED Talk, amirite? This one goes way out there, with predictions about the future of human rights in 50 years.
(Not Nearly Close to) All the Versions
Audiobook versions of the UDHR in 21 languages. A great way to practice for your Spanish class.
Eleanor Roosevelt reads an excerpt from the UDHR.
An audio documentary from 1959 tracing the creation of the declaration.
John P. Humphrey's Handwritten Draft
Check out one of the original drafts of the declaration by Canadian humanitarian John Humphrey. Complete with scribbles, annotations, and cross-outs—because people born in 1905 didn't have Microsoft Word.
Roosevelt With the Complete Text
A famous image of Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the drafting committee, with the final result of three years' work: a shiny copy of the full UDHR.
The UDHR is one of the most widely read texts in the history of the world, published in more than 300 languages. In this picture from 1950, schoolchildren from the United Nations International Nursery School are checking out a copy. They must have been pretty precocious readers.