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What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a document that was drafted by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights after the close of the Second World War. The document was intended to more clearly define the “rights” mentioned in the charter of the United Nations, while also providing a clear and general definition of human rights for all member nations. The Declaration has since been translated into over 300 languages, and it is very widely referenced all over the world.

One of the champions of the document was Eleanor Roosevelt, who sat as chairwoman on the Commission when the document was drafted. Roosevelt also contributed a substantial amount of text to it. On 10 December 1948, the document was officially ratified by 48 member nations, while eight abstained from voting.

Altogether, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes 30 articles that clearly outline basic human rights such as freedom from torture and slavery. The Declaration is intended to clearly and simply lay out all of the rights to which people are entitled around the world, and it serves as an advisory statement rather than a legally binding document. Member countries of the United Nations are encouraged to support these rights, while making copies of the document widely available.

Many of the articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are drawn on the already existing bills of rights of several nations. The Declaration is intended to promote equality and liberty, and it includes a number of articles that focus on basic legal protections, such as the right to a fair trial. Women, children, and families are also addressed in several articles, because these groups face specific issues. In addition, Article 29 indicates that humans and governments have responsibilities to each other, to ensure that human rights are preserved and protected.

Some people have criticized the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, arguing that it is written with a very Western and Judeo-Christian bias. Muslims in particular have concerns about the Declaration, because they are concerned that some aspects of it may conflict with their religious beliefs. Some Eastern nations also believe that the concept of human rights belongs to Western philosophy, rather than to the whole world. Despite this opposition, many Eastern nations or countries with large Muslim populations have ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, indicating their support for it.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By bythewell — On Feb 21, 2013

@anon303703 - Just want to add that we're talking about the Saudi interpretation of Islam (about which even they are lenient when it comes to people they want to do business with). There are as many different interpretations of Islamic teachings as there are about Christian teachings and many Muslim countries signed this declaration.

I find it sad that the only time we hear anything about Islam is when somebody takes their interpretation of the text to an extreme view. The word Islam means "peace" and most Muslims I have met have used their religion as an inspiration to become better people, not to fill themselves with hate or disdain.

I sincerely believe that people should have freedom of religion, because I sincerely believe people should be able to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn't harm others (and that's where it gets complicated of course).

By pastanaga — On Feb 21, 2013

@Acracadabra - I can well imagine why South Africa abstained. Back then apartheid was still in full effect and the idea of signing a paper that declared all people deserving of equal, decent treatment would not have been popular.

It's difficult for me to imagine anyone being able to argue against most of the declarations on the human rights document, since they seem fairly self evident to me. But, I have been educated, and raised in circumstances where these rights and civil liberties were taken for granted.

By anon303703 — On Nov 15, 2012

Specifically, Saudi Arabia abstained from voting because Article 19 states that people have the freedom to change religion. This is against Islamic perspectives that apostasy is met with the death penalty.

Many communist states did not participate because 'freedom of thought' was contradictory to their particular ideologies!

By Acracadabra — On May 24, 2011

@yumdelish - I think of the eight nations who chose not to vote, six were from Communist countries. Their decision was likely linked to the political scene at the time.

I don't know why South Africa and Saudi Arabia abstained, but all eight did later become universal declaration of human rights signatories.

By yumdelish — On May 23, 2011

I don't understand why eight countries chose not to vote on this back in 1948. Did they later change their mind? What were their reasons for opting out?

By Penzance356 — On May 20, 2011

@Valencia - Your perspective is one shared by my uncle. He recently quit teaching high school history at an international school overseas, because he couldn't deal with the restrictions on what could be covered in class.

Article 19 of the universal declaration of human rights is intended to promote freedom to say or read things freely, without censorship. He would tell you that not all countries in the world want this to happen in the education system.

By Valencia — On May 18, 2011

Maybe I'm a little biased on this subject, as I have been working with marginalised people for several years. What I really want to say is that pieces of paper are fine but action has to follow theory.

I'd love to think that the key points, including freedom of speech and the right of each person to dignity, regardless of ethnicity or gender, are still being practiced. Sadly I'm going to be difficult to convince.

The universal declaration of human rights history is admirable, and we shouldn't forget what this legislation was intended to do. However, I do think it's time to examine and update it in relation to twenty first century society.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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