World marks UN Human Rights Day
Its main strength lies in its simplicity.
In a preamble and 30 articles, none of them very long, it lists the rights to which each individual is entitled. It is also wide-ranging, emphasising rights to education and health as well as to freedom and protection.
It has echoes of and in some cases directly lifts from earlier human rights documents. By picking and choosing from these, it is trying to show that it applies to all people and all places.
A key principle behind the Declaration was to confirm a move in world affairs from the concept of human rights as a domestic concern to an international one.
The aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust was felt to be the right moment to act. Shortly before the Declaration was agreed, the UN Charter had been drawn up. Activists wanted to fill in some of the detail of the human rights to be protected. The Charter only refers to “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
From the US Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Declaration stresses the right to “life (and) liberty”, though the American addition of the right to the “pursuit of happiness” becomes the more sombre “liberty and security of the person”. Perhaps happiness as a concept was not felt to be appropriate at that moment.
Largely matching the French Declaration on the Rights of Man in 1789, which said: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights”, it states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
And the prohibition on “cruel or unusual punishment” in the Bill of Rights in England in 1689 becomes the even wider ban on “cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment” in the Declaration.
Its other strength is that it is a declaration not a treaty. That meant it was easier to agree. In the final vote, nobody was against, but the Soviet Union and its allies, and South Africa and Saudi Arabia abstained. They could be outvoted for a declaration, not for a treaty.
The Soviet Union objected to individual property rights being included and more broadly wanted rights to be determined according to the “economic, social and national conditions prevailing in each country”. Its delegate declared that the rights were “illusory” because they “lacked effective guarantees”.
South Africa did not accept that “human dignity would be impaired if a person were told he could not reside in a particular area.” Saudi Arabia said the Declaration was based largely on Western culture, an argument that has resonance in some Islamic countries today.
Eleanor Roosevelt, the first chair of the Human Rights Commission which drew it up, was responsible for the form of the agreement. She felt it would be better to have a signpost to guide the UN itself and governments in the progressive application of human rights in international agreements and national laws. And it has helped to do just that.
Although it is not itself enforceable, it has given rise to other agreements which are. A good example is torture. The ban on torture enshrined in its Article 5 was made into an international convention against torture in 1975. The Convention acknowledges its debt.
The Declaration was also followed, in Europe, by the even more detailed European Convention on Human Rights, which drew on its principles and took them even further. The Convention is now part of national law in many Council of Europe states and it has own court to adjudicate claims.
The Declaration has itself also weakened the UN Charter’s emphasis on national sovereignty and strengthened the recent moves establishing a right to protection for threatened populations.
Of course, great chunks of the Declaration have been ignored and violated by large parts of the world. Its declaratory nature can be a source of weakness as well. But it is always there to hold governments to some account. Increasingly it has provided the kind of inspiration that its founders had envisaged.
Amnesty International’s Campaign Director Tim Hancock says he refers to the Declaration constantly. “Recently, I found it useful in cataloguing the atrocious violations in the Congo,” he said.
“The Declaration is a fine document which serves as the bedrock for later treaties. It is magnificent and inspirational. The Torture Convention for example is based on it and Amnesty would like to get back to the inspiration of the original document in trying to stop the widespread flouting of the convention, including certain conduct in the war on terror.
“We find young people respond to the accessible language and 4,000 British schools have taken our information pack for the anniversary.
“This anniversary has reminded me that the preamble is sometimes neglected. It warns about what happens if human rights themselves are neglected. ‘Barbarous acts’ follow and man is ‘compelled to have recourse, in the last resort, to rebellion.’”
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent BBC News website