The Inherent Dignity of Humankind: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

14 Dec 23

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948. Promulgated in the darkness between the brutal horrors of World War II and the dawn of the Cold War, the power of its words has inspired numerous constitutions of nations and international human rights treaties. Above all, it stands as an exemplar of an international consensus of a kind that seems hopelessly unattainable today.

Of the 58 members of the UN at the time, 48 voted in favor of the Declaration, including the United States, Iran, and China, and none voted against it (ten countries abstained or did not vote, including the Soviet Union and its captured states, Saudi Arabia, and apartheid-era South Africa). Today, most member states of the 190-member body have ratified legally binding treaties based on its principles. The Declaration has the distinction of holding the world record for the most translated document, having been translated into 561 languages.

The Declaration recognizes, in the first sentence of the preamble, that the "inherent dignity of humankind" is the "foundation of freedom, justice and peace" in the world. The very first Article of the Declaration proclaims, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." As this blog has maintained, advancing human dignity is a fundamental cornerstone of our profession. Indeed, it is “what makes the practice of law worthwhile.” If the consequences are dire, "every human has the right to have her story heard" — or, in the words of Article 6 of the Declaration, "Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law."

No less than the indefatigable Eleanor Roosevelt, widowed by FDR’s death in 1945, spearheaded the Declaration's drafting effort as chair of the drafting committee. The vice-chairman hailed from China, Peng-chun Chang; the rapporteur was Charles Malik, of Lebanon; the secretary was Canada’s John Humphrey, director of the UN Human Rights Division; and René Cassin of France prepared the final draft. These disparate committee members clashed often and vigorously, grappling with tensions between western philosophies and eastern ideals of Confucianism.

They achieved solidarity by a focus on human dignity, as ably articulated here:

The way forward was found by putting the foundation of the UDHR not on freedom first, but on respecting human dignity, which in turn was the foundation of freedoms, rights and duties.

Thus the richly textured UDHR gives a rather more robust vision of the human person than a bill of negative freedoms. It does not begin with an isolated individual left alone with his rights, but rather a person who is embedded in a network of social relationships, beginning with the family.

The fundamental rights were there — freedom of religion, speech, association — but also a vision of the human person who, according to “reason and conscience … should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Thus the UDHR begins with an acknowledgement that we have responsibilities toward each other. It includes rights that, say, the Canadian Charter does not, such as the “right to own property,” the “right to form and join trade unions,” the “right to rest and leisure” and the right to an “adequate standard of living.” The vision is of a just society, not only a free one.