It's fair to call the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a list of ethical principles. Human rights philosophy, as contained in this document, is one of the most important ethical systems in the modern world.
Right up there with Facebook's community standards.
Throughout the text, you find appeals to the principles of right and wrong through specific vocabulary that emphasizes the dignity of humankind. This is especially true in the preamble. The opening lines cite the need to recognize the "inherent dignity" of the "human family" (Preamble.1) in order to promote freedom and justice. The preamble also refers to the morally "barbarous acts" (Preamble.2) of World War II, which alerted the world to the need for a codification of the right and wrong treatment of human beings.
The key authoritative word in the title is "universal." The authority of the document comes from the idea that it is meant to be a "common understanding of these rights and freedoms" (Preamble.7)—an official list agreed to by all the nations who signed it. The UDHR is presented in the manner of a treaty or resolution, appealing to order and law as opposed to emotion and passion. By proclaiming itself as a "common standard of achievement" (Preamble.8), the text makes a claim to be of the highest order of moral importance.
The text doesn't really attempt to convinceyou of its points either through emotion or persuasion. Its content is presented as an on-the-face-of-it description of right and wrong, and its authority is implied to be the consent of the world of nations. And how can you argue with something you wrote yourself, right?
The declaration is a list of articles, with each article naming a human right. The articles range from specific (no torture, no slavery) to kind of, sort of vague (everyone has duties to the community). The list format reflects the same structure as some of the documents that influenced the declaration, such as the Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta.
Hey, remember that war we just fought where millions died and everyone treated each other like subhumans? Let's not do that again. In fact, here's a list of things everyone in every country is entitled to. Follow these if you want to be a free country.
We're all human (or "yuman," if you're from Brooklyn). That means that we're born free, with the ability to think for ourselves. The declaration applies to everybody regardless of race, color, sex, nationality, or dancing ability.
These are your basic rights to life, liberty, and safety. Most importantly, everybody gets a fair trial in the courts, is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and can't be arrested at random. This section is all about ensuring that everybody gets equal protection under the law.
Within your own country, you're free to move around as you please. If you're being persecuted by your country's government, you have the right to seek protection in another country. Marriage and family, the foundation of society, are protected as human rights.
You can say what you want, think what you want, and believe what you want. Everyone has the right to access information in any form across national borders.
You have the right to be free from want (a nicer word for starvation, perhaps). That means the right to work, social security, fair pay, and good working conditions. Even vacation time is enshrined as a human right. Shmoop can totally get behind that one.
Everybody is entitled to participate in all the good things that come with community, like art and science. You also have "duties to the community" (29.1), though the text doesn't say exactly what these are. Finally, the big caveat is that no right can interfere with someone else's right. The text is not to be used to contradict the "principles of the United Nations" (29.3). So stop looking for loopholes, people.
Though it's not the most difficult text to read, the UDHR also isn't poetry. International treaties written by committee tend not to be. Like in any good declaration, there are plenty of uses of "whereas" and "therefore" to go around.
The text is the product of a committee writing process that originally involved just a few people. But the drafting committee eventually swelled to 18 representatives from countries all over the world. The drafting process was also followed by debate and amendments in meetings of the U.N. General Assembly. So unlike some documents influenced by the philosophy of human rights, such as the Declaration of Independence or Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, you don't see the voice of one author. That's probably appropriate given that this text is meant to have the force of universality—that is, it's supposed to represent everyone.
Since it's formatted as a simple list, the actual style of the text is repetitious and straightforward. Most of the articles begin with the simple formulation of "everyone has the right." With so much content packed into 30 short articles, this to-the-point approach delivers a lot of material into a tight package. Like a delicious burrito of human rights. Or crepe. Or blintz. Or samosa. Or…well, you get the picture.
The original idea behind the UDHR was to create an international bill of rights that would have the force of international law. The drafting committee behind the document settled on a declaration, or nonbinding resolution, thinking it would be easier to get everyone to agree to it that way. It was a first step toward a more binding agreement.
Like a box of chocolates, there's a lot to unpack in the title of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We may as well go word by word…
You've probably figured out that this word implies the sense of "everything." Something that's universal is true in all times and places, to all people, in all situations—in other words, throughout the universe. By adopting the UDHR, the United Nations signaled that human rights were owed, by international agreement, to everyone in the world, regardless of…well, regardless of anything.
Of course, it's pretty hard to find something that everyone agrees is truly universal. The UDHR was not adopted by unanimous vote, and some parties objected that particular articles are biased toward Western culture or place too little or too much value on certain ideas, like the rights of the individual versus the rights of the community. But hey, they gave it a pretty good try for 1948.
When you declare something, you're stating a claim. For example, the Declaration of Independence states that the United States is its own country. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states what human rights are.
A declaration is different from a law or other legal document. This declaration focuses on how things should be, taking a moral stance on everything from social security to freedom of religion. Unlike, say, the Constitution, the UDHR does not detail how all these rights should be enforced or come up with a mechanism to do it. As the body that adopted it, the United Nations has the responsibility to try to make good on the words of the declaration, and it does this (with mixed success) through its various branches and peacekeeping efforts.
Homo sapiens. People. Folks. The rights listed in this document belong to anyone who fits the description of "human." You might find this obvious, but keep in mind that before World War II, the world was still obsessed with classifying people based on their race and ethnicity—to the extent that some people thought different races were different species. The Nazis called Jews and Slavs Untermenschen, which is to say, "inferior people" or "subhuman." That was still fresh in the minds of the drafters of the UDHR.
It was important in 1948 to emphasize the idea of human rights, as opposed to civil, political, or personal rights, because the world up to that point had been so torn apart by racial and ethnic violence and division.
The idea that you can distill human dignity into individual "rights" is useful. It provides an actionable list of dos and do nots. Do: give everyone the right to a fair trial. Do not: torture people. Like the Bill of Rights, the UDHR gives the governments of the world a code to live by.
The "rights" part was what hung up some countries, which thought that something like decent health care was a privilege or a need, not a right. That debate is still going on.
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 […]. (Preamble.1)
Okay, so normally you don't start a sentence with "whereas." This is merely a formal way to start off official documents. The "whereas" signals the purpose of the preamble, which is to give us the why. Why do we need a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the first place?
These opening lines (and the ones that follow) answer that very question. In the minds of the drafting committee, the whole purpose of the U.N.—keeping peace, promoting good relations between countries—rested on recognizing human rights. Not on gigantic armies, the threat of force, or state institutions, but in the dignity of individuals.
The choice to describe a "human family" underscored the sense of global community that the U.N. was trying to establish. It was a direct response to the I-hate-you-you-hate-me type of politics that had plunged the world into World War II. If everyone could just treat each other like family, the world would probably be better off. Unless you're talking about dysfunctional families during the holidays.
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. (30.1)
Here, the authors are saying they don't want their words twisted You can't interpret the UDHR as giving you permission to violate human rights. For example, you can't claim freedom of religion if your religion calls on you to make human sacrifices (which would deprive someone of the right to life).
Note that the closing lines take the message beyond governments and address "any State, group or person." This is significant because governments aren't the only institutions that can violate human rights. Corporations, social groups, and political parties can be pretty good at it, too.
The responsibility for implementing human rights doesn't just fall on the people in charge. It belongs to everyone.
Thankfully, the actual text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights respects your human right to not be confused. This document is a pretty easy read, for a few reasons…
Overall, reading this text shouldn't give you too much difficulty. If it does, you can figure it out.
After all, all human beings "are endowed with reason" (1.2).
Eleanor Roosevelt, chairwoman of the drafting committee for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was nicknamed "Granny" when she was still a child. Evidently she had the personality of an older woman—she was super responsible and serious beyond her years. (Source)
December 10th, the date that the U.N. adopted the UDHR, is now officially considered Human Rights Day. Next December, try to exercise all of your human rights on the same day. If you get all the way to seeking asylum in another country, you'll know you nailed the celebration. (Source)
John P. Humphrey, one of the principle authors of the declaration, lost one of his arms in a childhood accident. He was playing with fire. The teasing he endured from other kids contributed to his development as a compassionate humanitarian. When is this guy getting his own Disney movie? (Source)
According to some historians, the first recorded document protecting human rights was the Cyrus Cylinder, an ancient artifact from the time of the Persian Empire, 539 B.C. The text was written on a clay cylinder. Among its provisions were the abolition of slavery, freedom of religion, and racial equality. That's right, the guys from 300 invented human rights. (Source)
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the world's most translated document, existing in around 370 languages. Some of these are spoken by millions of people, while others are spoken by less than 100. Next, they'll be translating it into Elvish, Dothraki, and Vulcan. There might even be an emoji out there somewhere. (Source)