The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is quite possibly the most cited legal document ever drafted by a Canadian and has contributed to growing human rights paradigm since the end of the Second World War.


Universality of the Declaration

Was this only an initiative of the West?
Oftentimes, criticism about human rights is centred around the belief that human rights are a ‘western’ concept and ideal that is pushed on the rest of the international community. It is important to understand however that the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a process involving states from around the world.

Originally, a representative of Panama submitted a draft declaration of fundamental human rights and freedoms in the first session of the UN’s General Assembly officially putting a human rights declaration on the UN’s agenda. Throughout the drafting process of the Declaration, numerous proposals from countries such as Chile, Cuba and India were debated and adopted while the constitutions of fifty-five nations were introduced and considered.

The vote of the General Assembly on December 10, 1948 to approve the Universal Declaration was unanimous except for eight abstentions by 8 countries (Byelorussian SSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukrainian SSR, USSR, as well as Yugoslavia, South Africa and Saudi Arabia) which took exception to the implications of the Declaration as to freedom of the individual. Nations voting in favour of the UDHR’s adoption included Afghanistan, China, Ethiopia, India, Liberia, Pakistan, Thailand and all of the UN Member States from Central and South America.

While a number of people can be attributed to contributing to the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the following individuals deserve special recognition and were consistently involved in the drafting committee process within the UN Commission on Human Rights. This committee showcases the breadth of the individuals involved from across the globe in the development of this landmark document.

Eleanor Roosevelt (United States) – Chair
PC Chang (China) – Vice Chair
Rene Cassin (France)
Vladimir M Koretsky (USSR)
Ralph L. Harry (Australia)
Mr. G. Wilson (UK)
Mr. H. Santa Cruz (Chile)
Toni Sender – NGO; American Federation of Labour
Mr. Havet – UNESCO
John Peters Humphrey - Secretariat

These individuals were charged in 1946 with the task of creating an International Bill of Rights following the aftermath of World War II. By enshrining human rights within the newly created United Nations, the hope that humanity would learn from and move forward from the “acts of barbarism” that resulted in the Second World War and the atrocities that took place.

The UDHR's impact

The Declaration was a remarkable achievement, created in a relatively short time (1947-1948) but also in an user-friendly language understandable to all people. Mrs. Roosevelt famously declared that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was “the international Magna Carta for all mankind”. The UDHR serves as the source for many national human rights documents and is now part of the customary law of nations.

The UDHR was passed on the night of December 10, 1948, which is now celebrated as International Human Rights Day. The Declaration has become the standard to rally around affirming the inherent dignity and worth of every person and a collective expression of the global commitment to freedom.

In 2013, the world celebrates the 65th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the words of Professor John Peters Humphrey:

Some measure of the impact which the Declaration has had on the expectations of individual men and women can be found in the many thousands of communications received by the United Nations every year from people everywhere alleging that their rights have been violated and invoking the Declaration in their appeals for help.

The goal and hope was to embody and reflect the highest aspiration of humanity towards FREEDOM, JUSTICE and PEACE as stated in the preamble of the UDHR itself:

Whereas the recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and unalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…