Study Guide

Universal Declaration of Human Rights Quotes

By United Nations Drafting Committee

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  • Freedom

    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. (Preamble.2)

    The freedoms referenced here were the Allies' proclaimed purpose in fighting World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt originally came up with the idea of "four freedoms," presenting the war as a humanitarian endeavor. Today, these freedoms really represent the values of the modern United Nations, and all the political, philanthropic, and cultural work that it does.

    In 1943, artist Norman Rockwell published four illustrations of these freedoms in The Saturday Evening Post. Check 'em out

    All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. (1.1)

    This is pretty much the underlying idea behind all modern human rights philosophies. The old world was all about authority. It featured slavery, serfdom, imperialism, and classism. But the new world under the United Nations was supposed to embrace the higher principles of humanitarianism.

    No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms. (5.1)

    If you want to talk about things that are incompatible with human rights, slavery would top the list. Abolitionists the world over had been trying to end slavery since the 1800s (at least), but during World War II, forced labor drove the Nazi Germany war machine. Sadly, slavery still persists against international law in the contemporary world.

    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. (21.3)

    According to the declaration, voting isn't just a right you have as a citizen of a country: it's a human right, too. It's hard to overstate how huge an idea that is. The document is basically saying that democratic government (in some form) is required all over the world. Saudi Arabia just got on board with equal suffrage in 2015, when women were grated the right to vote in municipal elections for the first time.

    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. (29.2)

    One of the ways people define freedom is as an ability to do what you want. This article declares that your freedom is unlimited in that way—except where it would interfere with someone else's freedom or create a disorderly society. Anarchy is bad, m'kay?

  • Morality and Ethics

    Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind. (Preamble.2)

    This passage is a reference to the Nazi crimes against humanity committed during World War II. The "disregard and contempt for human rights" (understatement of the century) was one of the main motivations to draft a declaration. Nazis—we hate those guys.

    No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. (5.1)

    Previous human rights documents, like our very own Bill of Rights, had outlawed "cruel and unusual punishment." The need for this article to echo that sentiment was especially strong after the world discovered what happened during the Holocaust.

    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. (22.1)

    Here's a passage not everyone might agree with. Is it the government's job to protect social and economic rights? Or should you be left to fend for yourself? A little historical context helps. The Great Depression and widespread poverty in Germany was a key factor in the rise of the Nazi Party. So it made sense that the United Nations forwarded freedom from want as one of the responsibilities of good government. Nobody wanted a repeat.

    [Education] 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. (26.5)

    The idea of a "moral education" has been around for centuries, but in 1948, this point was especially powerful. Modern advancements in science and technology had just been used to conduct the bloodiest war of all time. To make the world truly free, the declaration argues, education has to include an appreciation of the cultures of other countries so we'll be less likely to kill each other because of different political, social, or religious beliefs. In other words, education is lots more than just job training.

    Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible. (29.1)

    Some critics of the UDHR say that it promises too much. This penultimate article turns the focus back on the people. Everyone has a responsibility to support human rights by contributing to the social and economic development of their communities. It's basically arguing that you can't have a moral and just world or nation without everyone buying into the concept and doing something about it. You know how they say that if you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem? This is kind of what the declaration is talking about here.

  • Equality

    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. (2.1)

    They're really covering all their bases here. For millennia, humans have come up with all kinds of creative ways to deny someone equal participation in society. Even in democratic societies, property ownership was often a prerequisite for voting. In the philosophy of the declaration, it doesn't matter if you're at the bottom of the rung—you're still just as deserving as everyone else.

    In 1950, India made its caste system illegal. Coincidence?

    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. (2.2)

    During the World War II era, most of the world's superpowers controlled territory abroad. For example, the British Empire controlled India, and the Indian population didn't have the same status as British citizens. This passage tries to address that problem by granting equal rights to people who are under another country's control.

    Relationship status update: India got its independence from Britain in 1947, but at the time of the writing of the UDHR, Britain still had lots of other colonies.

    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. (16.1-2)

    Translation: no arranged marriages and no marital discrimination. One party in a marriage isn't the property of the other. It may seem obvious now, but this passage hit some progressive notes at a time when interracial marriages were actually illegal in parts of the United States. That ended in 1967.

    Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. (23.2)

    Seventy years later, equal pay for equal work isn't a reality, with a lot of evidence pointing to wage gaps between men and women. Props to the UDHR for knowing this was just plain wrong.

    Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. (26.3)

    One important aspect of equality is access to resources. Besides food, water, and Hulu, education is just about the most important resource there is. Therefore, Shmoop. Of course, in the real world, educational equality isn't the reality—we're still chasing that standard.

  • Visions of the World

    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. (Preamble.8)

    "Universal," "all," "every"—get the point?

    Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. (14.1)

    The declaration envisions a global system in which countries protect not only their own citizens, but outsiders as well. This was tragically not the case leading up to World War II, when the United States and other countries rejected Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Just as tragically, it's still not the case, as countries are closing their borders to the brutalized refugees of Syria, to cite just one example.

    The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State. (16.4)

    In the ideology of the declaration, the family is the group that allows you to develop into a contributing member of society. You know, instead of a political party or program like the Hitler Youth. Protecting the rights of families is really an extension of protecting the rights of individuals. A totalitarian government, in order to be successful, has to weaken those family bonds, especially if your parents are those annoying subversive types who don't want you to join the Nazi Party or ISIS.

    Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. (21.1)

    The declaration makes a big plug for representative democracy here. Can you really have human rights if you have no role in enforcing them? A society where human rights are merely entrusted to higher-ups without any say from the people would quickly become a society with no rights at all.

    Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized. (28.1)

    The words "international order" make some people freak out and think that the United Nations is trying to establish a new world order, 1984-style. In reality, this is more of a call for change than a hidden global agenda. It's aspirational. Kind of like those conversations you have late at night saying things like, "Man, if only it were like this…" A few years later, the U.N. would get tougher and ask its members to sign on to some serious commitments about human rights, but it still didn't see itself as any kind of world government.

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