United Nations Archive 1

Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Magna Carta for the World


By Bill Miller

A major milestone will be reached on December 10, 2008, when the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) marks its 60th anniversary. It was in the aftermath of World War II (with the vivid reminder that Europe and parts of Asia lay in ruins, over 60 million people died, and millions more had their inalienable rights violated) that former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the UN’s Human Rights Commission and applied her immense talent to crafting this unique document. She adroitly shepherded the UDHR through the UN General Assembly, a document that has positively affected the lives of hundreds of millions of people over the past six decades.

The UDHR, adopted on December 10, 1948, in Paris, lays out the minimum human rights at birth that should be available to everyone on the planet. Among the basic entitlements are rights of people to choose their form of government, express freedom of religion and thought, enjoy privacy, and receive a fair trial. The UDHR condemns slavery, torture and arbitrary arrest. Many of the Declaration’s basic concepts were borrowed from the French Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) and the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights (1791).

Since 1948, a key UN accomplishment has been to draft over 60 human rights declarations dealing with issues ranging from refugees, genocide, torture, workers rights, and discrimination. More information can be accessed at www.un.org.

All of the agencies within the UN System attempt to focus on the key element of human rights, regardless of whether it is the World Health Organization, UNICEF (UN Children’s Fund) or the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The human rights definition has expanded over the years so that today it is included when discussing other major international challenges to UN agencies, such as climate change, sustainable development or even nuclear disarmament.

What can be done to strengthen human rights domestically and internationally? For starters,

-- The general public and policymakers should learn more about the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and share information about the uniqueness of this exemplary document. Although the declaration is not legally binding, it has evolved as the foundation upon which customary international law has developed because it is universally perceived as “a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations.”

-- Although it has gotten off to a rocky start, the US Government should actively support the UN’s Human Rights Council, as well as other organizations that strive to stop religious persecution and encourage freedom of speech and freedom from want.

-- The US Senate should be encouraged to ratify immediately two critical human rights documents that have languished for years on Capitol Hill, the “Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women” and the “Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

-- The US should join the International Criminal Court which prosecutes and punishes persons responsible for crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes.

-- Finally, efforts should be made to banish torture and political killings. Many human rights activists, as with the UDHR, believe that capital punishment is a violation of human rights.

During a recent “Global Connections Television” interview, Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and past President of Ireland, indicated that the principles for human rights are “universal and indivisible”; however the gap between reality and human rights rhetoric must be closed.

Although all 192 UN member states have incorporated all or parts of the Declaration into their legal framework, tragically some governments still systematically deprive their citizens of their basic rights. Flagrant violations of human rights persist, such as the genocide in Darfur, illegal human trafficking, and inhumane acts of rape and mutilation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It is doubtful that any country has a perfect human rights record; however, achieving the laudable principles of the UDHR should be the ultimate goal of every UN member. The US is fortunate to have an excellent Constitution and Bill of Rights. Even so, the US is not immune from human rights violations. Often, the media report on the several hundred police officers under investigation for violating suspects and prisoners’ rights; the battered women and their children who cower in fear at the local spouse abuse center; the same-sex couples who are denied basic services; professional women who hit the discriminatory “glass ceiling;” or the raft of human rights violations conducted at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

Human rights violations and discrimination come in a variety of forms and venues. The guarantee of each person’s inalienable human rights must be a 365-day a year endeavor that is not limited to lip service but is steeped in a vocal and informed conviction that human rights must apply to everyone, or they apply to no one. Support for human rights cannot be passive.


Bill Miller, former Chair of the UN Association of the USA's Council of Chapter and Division Presidents, is the accredited Washington International journalist covering the UN and is the Producer/Moderator of “Global Connections Television.”