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The No. 1 human right on the UDHR's long laundry list is freedom. "All human beings are born free" (1.1), the declaration says. It's the natural state of persons. The Blues Brothers knew it. The Rascals knew it. Nothing is more important.
But what does "free" mean? The rest of the list is an attempt to answer that very question by naming all the rights and conditions that free people are entitled to. Some of them are no-brainers—you can't be free if you're a slave or arbitrarily thrown in jail—but others present difficult questions.
For example, can you really be "free" if you're starving? What if you become sick and are unable to work? Don't you also need an education in order to be truly free?
The truth is that different people have different answers to the question of what freedom is. That's why the declaration was put in place—to try to set a universal standard. It's right there in the title.
You might be born free, but you need the right political and economic conditions to stay that way.
The U.N. probably knew that this freedom thing would be a hard sell to dictators like Stalin or to countries like South Africa with its apartheid government.
The UDHR is all about how people should be treated. The operative word there is "should." Morals and ethics tell us how we ought to behave, setting a standard for us to aspire to.
The declaration has more force as a moral text than as a legal document. The document is pretty much a how-to guide aimed at nations, saying, "This is the right way to treat your people." The U.N. has various arms dedicated to meeting human rights goals, but the responsibility ultimately falls back on member nations.
At the time it was written, in 1948, the declaration was an explicit contrast to the principles of fascism and dictatorships. The Nazi regime was exhibit A in how a nation should not behave. Under systems like Hitler's, might was right, and governments treated people however they wanted using force. Who wants to live in that world? You know, other than people like this guy?
The UDHR is like a moral guidebook for the member states of the United Nations.
Germany, the biggest violator of human rights in World War II, wasn't in the U.N. and couldn't even sign the declaration.
"Universal," in the way it's framed in the UDHR, means "the same for everyone." If something is universal, it applies as equally to you as to someone on the other side of the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is all about declaring what people have in common, not what makes them different.
That's why equality underlies the entire philosophy of the declaration. The rights listed in this text are, by definition, supposed to belong to everyone—not just the rich, the ruling party, a certain race, or one gender. The list demands equality across the entire spectrum of civic society—from the courts to marriage to the workplace. We're all on the same team, according to the UDHR.
The drafters of the declaration knew how easy it was for the haves of the world to get more at the expense of the have nots. The emphasis on equality was a bold move, a strong moral stance in a world where equal opportunity was a pipe dream. Just ask George Orwell.
The declaration doesn't say everyone is the same, only that everyone should be given the same chances to have a safe, healthy, and dignified life.
Good luck with that, United Nations. Inequality can't be eliminated by a declaration.
The idea of a global community that would protect human rights goes back to the League of Nations, started after World War I. The United Nations is essentially a strengthened version of the original concept: an international body that would use the power of numbers to protect the weak from the strong. The declaration's uniqueness comes from its insistence that these human rights would be universal.
But it wasn't an instance of one powerful nation foisting its ideas on another. Even though there was some protest that the whole rights thing as presented in the declaration was infused with an idealized Western version of human rights, most nations agreed on most stuff.
In other words, more Lennon than Lenin.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights envisions a global community that, given the current state of the world, is pretty darn unrealistic.
The declaration has a moral, humanitarian vision of the world, as opposed to a vision of the world in which might makes right.