Following World War II, the government of the world committed themselves to establishing the United Nations (UN), with the primary goal of bolstering international peace and preventing future conflict. People wanted to ensure that never again would anyone be unjustly denied life, freedom, food, shelter, and nationality. The essence of these emerging human rights principles was captured in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address when he spoke of a world founded on four essential freedoms: freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear. Calls came from across the globe for human rights standards to protect citizens from abuses by their governments, standards against which nations could be held accountable for the treatment of those living within their borders. These voices played a critical role in the San Francisco meeting that drafted the United Nations Charter in 1945.
Member States of the United Nations pledged to promote respect for the human rights of all. To advance this goal, the UN established a Commission on Human Rights and charged it with the task of drafting a document spelling out the meaning of the fundamental rights and freedoms proclaimed in the Charter. The Commission, guided by Eleanor Roosevelt’s forceful leadership, captured the world’s attention.
On December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the fifty-six members of the United Nations. The vote was unanimous, although eight nations chose to abstain. Commonly referred to as the international Magna Carta, the UDHR extends the revolution in international law ushered in by the United Nations Charter – namely, that how a government treats its own citizens is now a matter of legitimate international concern, and not simply a domestic issue. Its Preamble eloquently asserts that:
[R]ecognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.
The thirty articles of the Declaration together form a comprehensive statement covering economic, social, cultural, political, and civil rights. The document is both universal (it applies to all people everywhere) and indivisible (all rights are equally important to the full realization of one’s humanity). The influence of the UDHR has been substantial. Its principles have been incorporated into the constitutions of most of the more than 185 nations now in the UN.
The Foundation Stone of the Human Rights Framework
A declaration is not a treaty and lacks any enforcement provisions. Rather it is a statement of intent, a set of principles to which United Nations member states commit themselves in an effort to provide all people a life of human dignity. Therefore, immediately after the adoption of the UDHR, the Commission on Human Rights took up the task of establishing a treaty that would make the principles enshrined in the UDHR legally binding on the UN Member States that ratified it. However, the political climate had changed drastically since the founding of the UN, and former allies were now engaged in the Cold War, in a power struggle between the so-called West Bloc of capitalist countries and the East Bloc of the Soviet Union and its communist allies. After nearly twenty years of negotiations the Commission was unable to draft one unitary document acceptable to both sides of the Cold War. Instead two separate treaties evolved and were adopted by the General Assembly in 1966: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
In the nearly two decades between the adoption of the UDHR in 1948 and that of the Covenants in 1966, the UDHR gained great authority as the world’s primary human right document. Its language was easily understood and its principles universally revered. During this period the Universal Declaration achieved the status of customary international law because people everywhere regard it “as a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations.”
Subsequent Human Rights Documents
The two Covenants, together with the UDHR and the UN Charter, are commonly referred to as the International Bill of Human Rights. The ICCPR focuses on such issues as the right to life, freedom of speech, religion, and voting. The ICESCR focuses on such issues as food, education, health, and shelter. Both Covenants trumpet the extension of rights to all persons and prohibit discrimination. Today most Member States have ratified these covenants. The United States, however, has ratified only the ICCPR, and even that with many reservations, or formal exceptions, to its full compliance.
In addition to the documents in the International Bill of Human Rights, the United Nations has adopted more than twenty principal treaties further elaborating human rights. These include conventions to prevent and prohibit specific abuses like torture and genocide and to protect especially vulnerable populations, such as refugees (Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951), women (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1979), children (Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989), and people with disabilities (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006)
This complex legal structure of international treaties, often referred to at the human rights framework, rest on the foundation stone of the UDHR. It remains the most quoted, most taught, and most familiar human rights document. It has even become the most translated document in human history.
Indeed, organization like Human Rights Educators USA continue to take inspiration from the exhortation of the Preamble to the UDHR, that –
[E]very individual and every organ of society … shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms.