Study Guide

Universal Declaration of Human Rights Main Idea

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  • Main Idea

    Life and liberty are just the tip of the iceberg, folks. The 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enumerate a long list of personal, political, and economic rights that belong to everyone. The governments of the world that voted to adopt the UDHR in 1948 are supposed to do all they can to protect all the rights on the list.

    And just in case you forgot, "everyone" means everyone. According to the UDHR, it doesn't matter what your race, nationality, sex, religion, or preferred driving music is—everyone gets all of the rights. Even the people who thought The Emoji Movie was a good idea.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. Why in the aftermath of two world wars was it important for the nations of the world to agree on what constituted human rights?
    2. The rights listed in the UDHR fall into different categories. Do you think it's a comprehensive list?
    3. The U.N. voted to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but several countries abstained. What are some reasons that a country might not support a document like the UDHR?
    4. In your opinion, what's the most important right in the entire declaration?

    Chew on This

    The declaration, adopted in 1948, was way ahead of its time in defining the need for racial and gender equality in all societies.

    The declaration came way too late for most nations.

  • Brief Summary


    The Setup

    During World War II, the Allies proclaimed that they were fighting to protect humanity and establish universal freedom. They decided to call themselves the United Nations, a catchy name that stuck around when they created the League of Nations 2.0 after the war.

    In 1948, the U.N. adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in order to establish exactly what human rights are. The document took about two years to write. The UDHR was a direct response to the atrocities of World War II and a list of the values of the United Nations—mostly stuff about freedom, dignity, and peace.

    The Text

    The preamble, or introduction, states the reasons for creating the declaration. The idea was for all the countries in the world to recognize the freedom of all humans, promote peace and progress, and prevent future crimes against humanity. At the time it was presented, the UDHR was not an actual international law, but rather an expression of shared values that everyone agreed to pursue.

    The 30 articles, or sections, address a wide range of rights that fall into a few different categories. The first two articles provide a baseline: everyone is born free and equal regardless of their identity and nationality. These words are an expression of what it means (or should mean) to be human.

    The rest of the articles establish:

    • The basic rights of the individual against things like slavery, torture, and disenfranchisement.
    • Political rights, such as guaranteeing that everyone has the right to be a citizen of a country.
    • Freedom of thought, expression, and religion. 
    • The right to work and economic security.
    • The responsibility people have to create societies where they can exercise their rights.

    In terms of authority, the UDHR falls somewhere between an honor code and an actual law. It's a resolution that (almost) every U.N. country has agreed to abide by, but enforcing its particulars down to the letter is largely up to individual countries.


    Everyone in the world is free and entitled to basic human rights, regardless of—well, regardless of anything.

  • Questions

    1. Does the declaration place a greater emphasis on the rights of the individual or the rights of communities and groups?
    2. Who is the audience for this declaration? Who is supposed to follow its provisions?
    3. Could a nation's culture potentially interfere with the rules set down in the declaration?
    4. Should the UDHR, as an international document, supersede the cultural or legal norms of an individual country?
    5. Why, in 1948, did the world need to agree on a definition of "human rights"?
    6. What advantages (or disadvantages) does the UDHR have compared to national laws?
    7. The declaration states (in Article 25) that everyone should have access to social services like health care and unemployment insurance. Do you think this is a reasonable goal?
    8. What are some reasons that the declaration places high value on the family unit? Are there disadvantages to this?
    9. The declaration states that education should be universal and "directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights" (26.4). Do you think that's what most people in the U.S. think of as the goal of education?

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