Human Rights Day 2018: Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70

Visualization of States’ ratification of universal human rights treaties
Credit: OHCHR

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the seminal proclamation adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. See UN General Assembly, Resolution 217 A(III), Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948. The UDHR’s adoption followed that of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, making it the first UN instrument recognizing the basic principles of human rights. Over the subsequent decades, many of the rights recognized in the UDHR have been made legally binding through specialized UN human rights treaties and the development of customary international law. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stated that the UDHR “has passed from being an aspirational treatise into a set of standards that has permeated virtually every area of international law.” [OHCHR: 70th]

While the rights set forth in the UDHR have since become widely accepted, attacks and repression against human rights defenders have spiked in recent years. [GuardianAmnestyUN News] UN human rights experts recently noted “the appalling fact that between 2015 and 2017, on average, one person was killed every day while standing up for human rights.” [OHCHR: Defenders

At the International Justice Resource Center, the UDHR’s values are central to our beliefs and our work. If you value IJRC’s efforts to make human rights protections more accessible to our readers and others around the world, please consider making a year-end donation

Creation of the UDHR

Following the atrocities of the Second World War, the Members of the then-newly created UN identified the need for international standards on the treatment of human beings. See United Nations, History of the Document. At its first session, the UN General Assembly directed the preparation of what it called an “International Bill of Human Rights.” See id. The responsibility for preparing the UDHR fell to the Commission on Human Rights, a UN body composed of 18 members from around the world, including Eleanor Roosevelt, who has been credited as a driving force behind the UDHR’s adoption. See id.  After two years, the Commission produced a final draft of the UDHR, and on December 10, 1948, the General Assembly adopted it by a vote of 48 to zero, with eight Members abstaining. See id.

Influence of the UDHR at the Universal Level

In many ways, the treaties that follow the UDHR serve to either codify, expand upon, and fill in the gaps of the rights proclaimed in the UDHR. The first human rights treaty to come out of the UN system was the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which was adopted in 1965. The ICERD, which codifies and expands on the principle of equality described in articles 1 and 2 of the UDHR, also created the first UN human rights treaty body, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. See ICERD preamble, art. 8. The treaty entered into force in 1969, and 179 States have ratified it.

One year after the adoption of the ICERD, the UN Member States adopted two additional human rights treaties, the International Covenant on Civil andPolitical Rights (ICCPR)and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which together with the UDHR are referred to as the “International Bill ofHuman Rights.” See OHCHR, FactSheet No. 2 (Rev.1), The International Bill of Human Rights. Both treaties entered into force in 1976, when they had gained 35 States parties. The ICCPR established the Human Rights Committee and currently has 172 States parties. While the ICESCR, which currently has 169 States parties, does not create a treaty body, the UN Economic and Social Council later created one – the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – to monitor States parties’ implementation. See ECOSOC, Res. 1985/17, Review of the composition, organization and administrative arrangements of the Sessional Working Group of Governmental Experts on the Implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,28 May 1985.

In 1979, the UN adopted the text of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which entered into force in 1982, created the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and currently has 189 States parties.

In the 1980s the UN adopted two more treaties, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The CAT entered into force in 1987, established the Committee against Torture, and currently has 165 States parties. Similarly, the CRC established the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which entered into force in 1990. Its 196 parties, the most of any international human rights treaty, include the UN observer States of Palestine and the Holy See.

In 1990, the UN adopted the text of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which entered into force in 2003, created the Committee on Migrant Workers, and currently has 54 States Parties.

The two most recent universal human rights treaties were adopted in December of 2006. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities entered into force in 2008, established the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and currently has 177 States parties. The International Convention for the Protection of All Person from Enforced Disappearance entered into force in 2010, established the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, and currently has 59 States parties.

Influence of the UDHR at the Regional Level

In addition to the development of international human rights law at the universal level, the UDHR has also been relevant to the development of regional human rights instruments. A very similar instrument in both form and content, the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, was being drafted at the same time as the UDHR and was adopted by members of the Pan-American Union – now the Organization of American States – less than a year before the UDHR was adopted at the UN.

Two years later, the Council of Europe adopted the EuropeanConvention on Human Rights, which was the first regional treaty to legally protect many the rights described in the UDHR. The European Convention was also significant for creating two regional human rights oversight mechanisms in the European Court on Human Rights and the now-defunct European Commission on Human Rights.

The next prominent regional human rights treaty was the American Convention on Human Rights. Adopted in 1969, the American Convention built on the American Declaration and its 23 Member States’ compliance with its provisions is overseen by both the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. See IJRC, Inter-American Human Rights System.

In 1981, the African Union adopted the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which in addition to codifying many of the rights in the UDHR, afforded protection for the rights of groups with the recognition of “peoples’ rights.” The African Charter, which entered into force in 1986, also established the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In 1998, the African Union adopted a protocol to the African Charter which provided for the creation of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and currently has 30 States parties.

Legal Status of the UDHR

Although the UDHR was not intended to be binding international law, many assert that some or all of the rights protected in the UDHR have since become customary international law, binding on all States. See, e.g., Hurst Hannum, The Status of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in National and International Law, 25 Ga. J. Int’l & Comp. L. 287 (1995). A norm becomes customary international law when the general State practice recognizes the norm out of a sense of legal obligation. See Statute of the International Court of Justice, art. 38(1)(b). Advocates for the customary status of the UDHR cite evidence such as UN resolutions discussing the duty of States to comply with the UDHR; the condemnation of human rights violations as a violation of international law by international bodies; and State officials’ criticism of other States for human rights violations. See Hannum at 322.

Additional Information

As part of the 70th anniversary of the UDHR, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has launched its #StandUp4HumanRights Campaign to promote, engage, and reflect on what human rights and the UDHR has meant for people around the world.

For those in the San Francisco area, please join us for San Francisco Human Rights Night on the evening of Wednesday, December 12.

To learn more about Human Rights Law, the UN Human Rights System, the African Human Rights System, the European Human Rights System, or the Inter-American Human Rights System, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub. To stay up-to-date on international human rights law news, visit IJRC’s News Room or subscribe to the IJRC Daily.