Universal Declaration of Human Rights — A Brief History


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is generally agreed to be the foundation of international human rights law. Adopted in 1948, the UDHR has inspired a rich body of legally binding international human rights treaties. It continues to be an inspiration to us all whether in addressing injustices, in times of conflicts, in societies suffering repression, and in our efforts towards achieving universal enjoyment of human rights.

It represents the universal recognition that basic rights and fundamental freedoms are inherent to all human beings, inalienable and equally applicable to everyone, and that every one of us is born free and equal in dignity and rights. Whatever our nationality, place of residence, gender, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status, the international community on December 10, 1948, made a commitment to upholding dignity and justice for all of us.

Over the years, the commitment has been translated into law, whether in the forms of treaties, customary international law, general principles, regional agreements and domestic law, through which human rights are expressed and guaranteed. Indeed, the UDHR has inspired more than 80 international human rights treaties and declarations, a great number of regional human rights conventions, domestic human rights bills, and constitutional provisions, which together constitute a comprehensive legally binding system for the promotion and protection of human rights.

The non-binding principles of the UDHR were later incorporated into two international treaties that translate the declaration’s rights into international law. The two treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, were adopted by the General Assembly in 1966 and entered into force, after being ratified by enough individual nations, in 1976. The two Covenants are effectively binding on states that have ratified them. They set forth everyday rights such as the right to life, equality before the law, freedom of expression, the rights to work, social security and education. Together with the UDHR, the Covenants comprise the International Bill of Human Rights.

Over time, international human rights treaties have become more focused and specialized regarding both the issue addressed and the social groups identified as requiring protection. The body of international human rights law continues to grow, evolve, and further elaborate the fundamental rights and freedoms contained in the International Bill of Human Rights, addressing concerns such as racial discrimination, torture, enforced disappearances, disabilities, and the rights of women, children, migrants, minorities, and indigenous peoples.

The United States has ratified the UDHR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but not the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which it does not recognize as binding.


During the Second World War the allies adopted the Four Freedoms outlined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his third inaugural address in 1941 — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want — as their basic war aims. The United Nations Charter, adopted in June 1945, in the waning days of the war, “reaffirmed faith in fundamental human rights, and dignity and worth of the human person” and committed all member states to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”

When the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany became apparent after the war, the consensus within the world community was that the United Nations Charter did not sufficiently define the rights it referenced. A universal declaration that specified the rights of individuals was necessary to give effect to the Charter’s provisions on human rights.

The massive and systematic human rights abuses committed during World War II, including the Nazi genocide of Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and other groups, spurred the development of an international human rights instrument. In particular, the inclusion of crimes against humanity in the Charter of the International Military Tribunal, which paved the way for the subsequent Nuremberg Trials, signaled the need to hold the perpetrators of atrocities internationally accountable for their actions irrespective of any domestic provisions to the contrary or the silence of domestic laws. At the same time, the drafters of the UN Charter sought to highlight the interrelationship between war prevention and fundamental human rights. Two key ethical considerations underscored the main tenets of the UDHR: a commitment to the inherent dignity of every human being and a commitment to nondiscrimination.


In late 1945, leaders of the world’s free nations met in San Francisco to form the United Nations. Inspired by the South African pre-apartheid leader Field-Marshal Jan Smuts, an acclaimed international human rights theorist, they included in the preamble to the UN Charter an important reference to human rights:

“We the peoples of the United Nations [are] determined … to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”

This reference to human rights, was followed up by six references throughout the UN Charter’s operative provisions to human rights and fundamental freedoms. In addition, largely as a result of pressure brought to bear on the political leaders by some 42 United States non-government organisations, Article 68 was included. It required the Economic and Social Council to set up commissions in the human rights and economic and social fields. The outcome was the establishment of a Commission on Human Rights. Thus the Commission is one of the very few bodies to draw its authority directly from the Charter of the United Nations.

In April 1946, Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was appointed to chair an interim group of nine members. By June the interim body had suggested that the new Commission should make its first task the development as soon as possible of an international bill of human rights.

Later in the year, the new Commission of Human Rights of 18 members, again chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, was appointed, and included China’s P.C.Chang, French human rights lawyer Rene Cassin and Dr. Charles Malik of Lebanon. The Commission met for the first time in January 1947 and considered several critical issues. Its decisions have greatly influenced the human rights development since then, including action at national level. It concluded that it should work to develop first a declaration rather than a treaty. (An international declaration is a statement of importance, and has high moral and often political significance, and is more than a recommendation, but it is less than a treaty, which is binding in international law.) Perhaps most important of all, it decided that the declaration should contain both civil and political and also economic and social rights.

The Commission on Human Rights was made up of 18 members from various political, cultural and religious backgrounds. Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, chaired the UDHR drafting committee. With her were Canadian diplomat John Humphrey, Director of the UN Secreriat’s Human Rights Division, who prepared the Declaration’s blueprint, along with French human rights lawyer and Jewish leader René Cassin, who composed the first draft, as well as Committee Rapporteur Charles Malik of Lebanon and Vice-Chairman Peng Chung Chang of China. Eleanor Roosevelt was recognized as the driving force for the Declaration’s adoption.

The Commission met for the first time in January 1947. In her memoirs, Roosevelt recalled:

“Dr. Chang was a pluralist and held forth in charming fashion on the proposition that there is more than one kind of ultimate reality.  The Declaration, he said, should reflect more than simply Western ideas, and Dr. Humphrey would have to be eclectic in his approach.  His remark, though addressed to Dr. Humphrey, was really directed at Dr. Malik, from whom it drew a prompt retort as he expounded at some length the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.  Dr. Humphrey joined enthusiastically in the discussion, and I remember that at one point Dr. Chang suggested that the Secretariat might well spend a few months studying the fundamentals of Confucianism!

The final draft by Cassin was handed to the Commission on Human Rights, which was headquartered in Geneva. The draft declaration sent out to all UN member states for comments became known as the Geneva draft.

The first draft of the Declaration was proposed in September 1948 with over 50 member states participating in the final drafting. By its resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948, the General Assembly, meeting in Paris, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with eight nations abstaining from the vote [the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian SSR, and Yugoslavia] but none dissenting. Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile, a member of the drafting subcommittee, wrote:

“I perceived clearly that I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing—which gave rise to the inalienable right to live free from want and oppression and to fully develop one’s personality.  In the Great Hall…there was an atmosphere of genuine solidarity and brotherhood among men and women from all latitudes, the like of which I have not seen again in any international setting.”

The entire text of the UDHR was composed in less than two years. At a time when the world was divided into Eastern and Western blocs, finding a common ground on what should make the essence of the document proved to be a colossal task.


The declaration’s drafting process was marked by a series of debates on a range of issues, including the meaning of human dignity, the importance of contextual factors (especially cultural) in the determination of the content and range of rights, the relationship of the individual to the state and to society, the potential challenges to the sovereign prerogatives of member states, the connection between rights and responsibilities, and the role of spiritual values in individual and societal welfare. The onset of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union and the resulting deterioration of the global political climate led to sharp ideological exchanges on comparative assessments of the human rights situations in the Soviet-bloc countries, on one hand, and in countries under Western colonial rule on the other. The disagreements underlying these exchanges eventually resulted in the abandonment of a plan for an international bill of rights, though they did not derail efforts to develop a nonbinding human rights declaration. The binding elements of the International Bill of Rights, consisting of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, were adopted by the General Assembly in 1966 and entered into force in 1976.

A second dispute involved the Islamic bloc. Most Islamic countries have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights agreements. In 1948, however, Saudi Arabia did not sign the declaration, claiming that it violated Islamic Sharia law. Pakistan (which had signed the declaration) disagreed with and critiqued the Saudi position.
In 1982, the Iranian representative to the United Nations, Said Rajaie-Khorassani, said that the UDHR was “a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” which could not be implemented by Muslims without trespassing the Islamic law. On 30 June 2000, Muslim nations that are members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) officially resolved to support the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, an alternative document that says people have “freedom and right to a dignified life in accordance with the Islamic Shari’ah,” without any discrimination on grounds of “race, colour, language, sex, religious belief, political affiliation, social status or other considerations.” As a secular state, Turkey has signed the declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and other European Human Rights agreements.

The United States maintains reservations on Articles 23, 24 and 25 of the UDHR, which spell out universal economic rights to adequate income, leisure time, access to health care and trade union rights. These were implicit in the fourth of Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, namely freedom from want, but he died before his principles could be brought before Congress. For the same reason, the United States has not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.