Study Guide

Universal Declaration of Human Rights Historical Context

By United Nations Drafting Committee

Historical Context

Going Waaaayyy Back

The idea of universal human rights has been around way longer than the U.N., Pop-Tarts and Survivor: Borneo.

Back in the 500s B.C., Persian emperor Cyrus the Great published a public code allowing freedom of religion and outlawing slavery (source).

As a powerful guy who managed to conquer most of the ancient Middle East, he didn't have to do that; he could have deported and enslaved the people he conquered, like the Babylonians and Assyrians did before him. Instead, he let them go home as free people and decreed discrimination and oppression of religion unlawful. Plus, he fit the whole code on an inscribed clay cylinder the size of a Burrito Supreme.

Too bad he lived in a time before the Nobel Peace Prize.

Cyrus' ideas spread throughout the ancient world. They were so progressive and timeless that the U.N. translated them into their six official languages and used them as inspiration for the UDHR.

Fast-forward from that early experiment in Persia to 13th-century England and the Magna Carta. This super influential text placed limitations on the English monarchy by establishing some basic rights for citizens, such as the right to a fair trial and the right to own property. Wait, so you're saying rulers can't just do whatever they want? Novel idea. Needless to say, King John didn't exactly sign this document out of the goodness of his heart; his rebellious barons forced his hand.

The Magna Carta was a major inspiration to Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the drafting committee for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Enlighten Us

The basic idea for a code of rules limiting government has been around just about as long as government itself. But the foundation of modern human rights really started with the philosophy of "natural rights" during the European Enlightenment.

John Locke, a 17th-century philosopher, asserted that all people had "natural rights" regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, or culture (source). He didn't pull the concept out of thin air, though. Locke, like a lot of intellectuals at the time, drew heavily on the ideas of ancient thinkers.

Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle had written about justice and government in works like The Republic and Nicomachean Ethics, which argued that nature endowed humans with their essential qualities. In other words, it wasn't just politics or religion that made you a person. In the view of these philosophers, we're all cut from the same essential cloth—although the Greeks subscribed to rigid views of class and practiced slavery. Go figure. John Locke updated their concepts for his own time, writing that all people had the right to "life, liberty, and property."

We bet that phrasing sounds familiar to you Yankees. Yep, Locke's philosophy of natural rights was a huge influence on the founding documents of the American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights reflected Locke's words with phrases like "life, liberty, and the purfuit of happineff."

The American Revolution was arguably the first instance of a country being founded entirely on the principles of the rights of citizens (although—important detail here—because of the institution of slavery, not everybody got to be a citizen). It also inspired the French Revolution, during which the French overthrew their monarchy and established the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

A Global Club

So you can see that the idea that people deserve to be treated a certain way based on moral principles has been around for a long time. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, is just the most recent entry in this continuing experiment. But why did it happen when it happened?

Two words: United Nations.

Love it or hate it (and you'll find plenty of people on both sides, and everything in between), the U.N. is one of the most important organizations of the post-World War II era.It would take several books to give everybody's opinion on this beast, so here's the Shmoop version:

The idea for an international organization of countries started with the League of Nations (RIP). President Woodrow Wilson came up with this idea in his Fourteen Points, the agenda he set for resetting the world in the aftermath of World War I. The idea was to create a global community that would help prevent future wars. It was also supposed to protect the sovereignty, or independence, of nations against imperialism and to provide nations the opportunity for self-determination (choosing their own system of government). The League of Nations was supposed to be kinda like the world's government.

The league proved to be about as effective as your attempts to limit Facebook time, in part because the United States didn't actually end up joining. (The Senate voted against it.) It boiled down to a problem of principle versus force. The nations of the league could talk and talk and talk, but when one country decided to invade another, there wasn't much the league could do to enforce its "decisions."

It quickly became pretty clear that the organization needed an extreme makeover. But before that could happen, everyone would have to go through a major trauma to convince them: World War II.

Hello, My Name Is Hitler

In the wake of the economic disaster of the Great Depression, the political system of fascism took hold in Germany and several other countries during the 1930s. Fascism is based on aggressive military expansion, racial supremacy, dictatorship, and the general suppression of human rights. The Nazi party, led by the Charlie-Chaplin-mustache-rocking megalomaniac Adolf Hitler, was the poster child for this form of government. Hitler's desire to conquer most of Europe, and the inability of the rest of the world to convince him to stop, was what led the world into World War II.

Like a low-budget horror movie, the World War I sequel—a nuclear version—was even worse than the original. World War II saw unprecedented loss of human life. Violations of human rights were rampant. The Nazis tried to systematically destroy the entire Jewish population of Europe (as well as Slavs and Roma and other ethnic groups and political opponents it considered subhuman), establishing a regime of extermination camps, forced labor, and torture.

In January 1942, shortly after the United States entered the war, the Allies signed a document called the Declaration by United Nations. They agreed to fight Germany and the rest of the Axis powers to the bitter end. That declaration portrayed the countries as fighting for four freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Never Again

As the war drew to a close, the Allied countries liberated Nazi concentration camps and became fully aware of the shocking atrocities that had occurred in Germany and its occupied territories during the Holocaust. The free world had a collective "holy crap" moment.

Pronto, the Allies reconstituted the wartime United Nations into the modern United Nations. Meeting in San Francisco in June 1945, the victorious countries signed a charter that created a fleshed-out international organization, essentially giving the concept of the League of Nations a second try. With the participation of all the world's remaining superpowers, including the United States and the Soviet Union (who had both opted out of the League of Nations), the U.N. promised to be more successful.

The United Nations Charter, the founding document of the organization, explicitly brought up the importance of protecting human rights as one of its main reasons for being. To accomplish this, leaders within the U.N. figured that the world needed to agree on a definition of human rights.

Enter Eleanor.

Eleanor Roosevelt, former first lady of the United States and America's first ambassador to the U.N., was appointed to head a committee tasked with drafting a human rights manifesto. Roosevelt hoped to create an "international bill of rights" that would have the force of international law. The drafting committee built on core ideas proposed by humanitarians John P. Humphrey and René Cassin and incorporated ideas from U.N. members all over the world.

After two years in the writing room, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on December 10th, 1948, with near-unanimous approval from the United Nations General Assembly. Why only "near unanimous"? The Soviet Union abstained from the vote, along with a few other countries, objecting to the declaration's insistence that Larry Bird, rather than LeBron, is the greatest NBA player of all time. Plus, they didn't like the emphasis on individual human rights counting for more than the state and the collective.

The final version of the document technically wasn't a treaty, meaning that it fell short of becoming international law. Still, Roosevelt thought that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had the potential to be even more significant than a treaty, referring to it as the "Magna Carta for all men everywhere." (Note: back then, "all men" meant all people).

Today the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one of the pillars of the United Nations. Like Happy Days, it inspired a bunch of spinoffs—in this case, treaties and subsequent international agreements on human rights.