The Universal Declaration of Human Rights


The Universal declaration of human rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948 at a moment when the world was in complete disarray. Darraj (2010, p. 23) posits, “The world was waking up to the unconscionable horrors of the Holocaust”. The sufferings experienced during the Second World War resulted in the need for the establishment of rules that could protect human rights. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established a committee comprising scholars like Aldous Huxley and Mahatma Gandhi, which was given the responsibility of formulating a proposal for the declaration of human rights. The UDHR was a significant step forward in the history of human rights.

It became the basis of the international human rights system. Darraj (2010, p. 25) claims that the UDHR “hastened an evolution, bequeathing to us something both inspirational and demanding”. Today, the UDHR serves as an inspiration and a yardstick for humanity. Most countries peg their human rights policies to the UDHR.

Events Prior and After UDHR

The United Nations made numerous attempts to introduce human rights into the Covenant of the League of Nations. It was after witnessing an immense violation of human rights during the First World War. The covenant catered only to labour rights (Donnelly 2013). Apart from the effort by the United Nations, there were private efforts within and outside the League of Nations to institute a global human rights body.

In 1929, the Institute of International Law came up with the Declaration for the Rights of Man, which stated that people had the right to life, freedom, and property (Donnelly 2013). The Second World War raised significant humanitarian concerns that resulted in the creation of the United Nations Charter. The charter served as the foundation for the development of the UDHR. Individual states that were members of the United Nations bore the responsibility of implementing the human rights under the supervision of the general assembly.

Numerous international laws have been developed after the UDHR. The rules seek to safeguard, support, delineate, and enlarge the content of human rights. For instance, copious international agreements were established to preserve the rights of refugees, children, minorities, women, and diplomatic agents among others.

Content of the Declaration

The UDHR comprises a preamble and thirty articles. The preamble is significant in assisting readers to appreciate the events that contributed to the drafting of the declaration (Orgad 2010). It outlines the social and historical events that preceded the declaration. They included oppression, disrespect for human rights, tyranny, enmity amid countries, and the need to value dignity and worth of a rational person.

Articles 1 and 2 outline what constitutes liberty, dignity, brotherhood, and equality. The clauses hold that all people are born liberated and equal in rights and poise. Additionally, they are against discrimination based on race, gender, religion, ethnicity, colour or political inclination. Articles 3-11 outline the fundamental human rights. They include the right to freedom, life, and safety (Morsink 2009). They also discourage slavery and servitude as they amount to an infringement on human dignity. Individuals are warned against subjecting others to inhumane treatments. The clauses declare that people have the right to be recognised as humans before the law. The law should protect all people equally without discrimination.

Articles 12 to 17 outline the way people should relate to one another. The clauses demand respect for individual’s privacy and are against any interference. Moreover, they grant people the freedom of movement. Article 14 requires countries to give asylum to foreigners who are persecuted in their home countries. However, the refuge cannot be granted to individuals accused of non-political felonies or violation of human rights (Morsink 2009). All adults, irrespective of their nationality, race, and religion have the right to establish families. Article 17 gives all people the right to purchase and own property. Articles 18-21set limits to “constitutional liberties”.

The clauses state that people have the rights to freedom of thought, religion, and conscience. Individuals are at liberty to change their belief or faith. They also grant people the right to freedom of expression, peaceful associations, and gatherings. Article 21 gives people the right to partake in governments of their respective countries. Moreover, it declares that people have the right to access public services. The article asserts the sovereign power of the people. Individuals have the power to elect governments periodically and via universal suffrage.

Articles 22 to 27 sanction person’s social, economic, and cultural rights. Article 23 grants people the right to employment and to work under favourable conditions. All employees have the right to equal pay for similar jobs (Morsink 2009). Article 24 gives employees the right to take a break from work and vacation. The article sets the maximum number of hours that an employee should work and grants them the right to paid leave and holidays.

Section 25 states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services” (Morsink 2009, p. 25). Article 26 grants people the right to elementary education, which is intended to build one’s personality. Article 27 outlines that people have the liberty to observe their cultures.

Articles 28 to 30 outline the way people should exercise these rights. They delineate the limitations of the human rights. Article 28 states that individuals are entitled to an international and social environment that supports the realization of the outlined rights and freedoms. Article 29 invites people to exercise their rights and freedoms in ways that do not infringe on other people’s liberties. Article 30 states that no one should use the powers provided for by the declaration to engage in activities that might violate the freedoms and rights articulated in the UDHR.

Significance of UDHR

One may regard the UDHR as the most significant expression of human principles of our generation. The declaration wields a political, moral and legal influence that surpasses the expectations of most of its formulators. The birth of the UDHR led to people changing their perceptions regarding human rights. It resulted in the propagation of a notion that everyone is entitled to civil rights. The value of the UDHR can be viewed in the broader framework of the world order as foreseen by the United Nations (UN) Charter.

Kwon, Barnett, and Chen (2009) maintain that it is imperative to interpret the UDHR based on the UN Charter to appreciate its significance. It is essential to remember that the declaration was founded after the Second World War. There was the need to make sure that countries coexisted peacefully. It was necessary to come up with measures to safeguard the territorial integrity of nations. Moreover, there was the need to establish friendly relations between countries to prevent possible external aggression.

The UDHR brought the concepts of self-determination and supreme equality, which were critical in bringing to end colonisation and all forms of empires. The UHDR called for the respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms. It discouraged discrimination of people based on race, ethnicity, gender, colour or religion. It marked the onset of nations coming together to address international problems. Today, states pool together their resources to fight social, economic, political, cultural, and humanitarian issues.

The UDHR is inimitable. According to Morsink (2009), the document was not only extraordinary but also its achievement highly implausible. No one thought that nations like the Soviet Union and the United States could work together and concur on a set of fundamental principles aimed at guiding society and politics. At the time of its formulation, distrust amid the two nations was at an all-time high. Morsink (2009, p. 45) maintains, “because of the unique origins and prominence of the document; my solid hunch is that the UDHR, and its follow-up covenants, has served as an important coordinating mechanism for future constitutional makers”.

Constitutional makers endeavour to match national texts with the UDHR as they consider the document not only authoritative but also legitimate. It is difficult for constitution makers to develop universal principles that can serve a nation for generations. The need to create a document that can withstand the test of time calls for constitution developers to rely on consensual documents like the UDHR. Most legal scholars admit that the UDHR is an influential document. They argue that the declaration influences the inclusion or exclusion of individual rights in many constitutions. Most countries use the UDHR as a guide in the formulation of human rights policies. One would not be wrong to regard it as the global Magna Carta for the entire humanity.

Comparison Between UDHR and Other Declarations

The UHDR defines human rights as “universal legal guarantees protecting individuals and groups against actions which interfere with fundamental freedoms and human dignity” (Hoover 2013, p. 221). Conversely, the United States Declaration of Independence defines human rights as unalienable privileges endowed to people by the creator (Hoover 2013). They include liberty, life, and search for happiness.

There are significant differences between UDHR, The U.S. Declaration of Independence, and the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI). One of the disparities between the UHDR and U.S. Declaration of Independence is that the former does not mention the origin of the human rights (Hoover 2013). The UDHR preamble constitutes obscure reference to inalienable rights. It depicts a notion that the government grants human rights.

On the other hand, the declaration of independence acknowledges God as the originator of human rights. It draws the idea that no human or government has the power to deprive people of their rights. The UDHR gives the United Nations the power to control all spheres of human rights. On the other hand, the U.S. declaration of independence limits the powers of the Congress regarding human rights.

The CDHRI views the UDHR as premised on secular ideologies attributed to Judeo—Christian traditions (Elsaidi 2011). Hence, it would be difficult to implement it without violating Islamic laws. While the UDHR believes in the universality of human rights, the CDHRI is founded on a general understanding of Sharia law. The UDHR holds that people have the liberty to associate with any religion. Conversely, the CDHRI does not grant people the freedom to belong to other faiths apart from Islam (Kayaoglu 2014). The declaration is against people converting to other religions. It brings out the idea that other religions are not significant, hence contributing to the hounding of Christians and atheists in Muslim countries.

Evolution of Human Rights System

Globalisation has altered the terms of association in global life, thus prompting the need to evolve human rights system. Since the establishment of the UDHR, there have been numerous human rights conventions, which have attempted to address areas not covered in the declaration. There has been the inclusion of the rights of children, and persons with disability. Even though the rights of women are mentioned in the UDHR, their language has been refined in the modern systems to facilitate clear understanding.

The UDHR emphasised the importance of gender equality. Unfortunately, the declaration did not help to stop gender discrimination. Societies continued to deprive women of their rights. Today, many countries have expanded article 2 of the UDHR to make sure that people uphold the rights of women. The modern regulations address specific attitudes, abuses and forms of neglect that have direct impacts on women.

The UDRH does not have articles that directly refer to the rights of children. Article 26 outlines the right to education. On the other hand, article 16 states that adults have the right to marry and raise families. In other words, the declaration affirms the rights of children indirectly. Apart from acknowledging the duties of governments and parents to children, the modern human rights systems outline the responsibilities of society at large. Today, some laws prohibit child labor and slavery.

Simmons (2009) avers that the UDHR does not describe the rights of persons with disabilities. It is imperative to recognise that persons with disabilities deserve equality and other rights preserved in the UDHR. Today, the human rights systems have evolved to identify persons with disabilities. In 2006, the UN came up with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to change the global perception of this group. Initially, people viewed persons with disabilities as “objects” of social protection, medical treatment, and charity.

The rights to sexual orientation have evolved significantly to include the rights of transgender, bisexual, gays, and lesbians. The rights attributed to sexual orientations are an extension of articles 2 and 16 of the UDHR. Article 2 states that all persons are entitled to the rights and freedoms stipulated in the declaration. Conversely, article 16 says that mature individuals are entitled to the right to marriage and to raise families. One may excuse the UDHR for not including the rights associated with sexual orientation. The drafters of the UDHR never envisioned a situation where people from the same gender would ever engage in intimate relationships.

Strengths and Weaknesses of UN System

The UDHR is associated with numerous benefits that can be valuable to human rights activism. The primary goal of the declaration is to collect the fundamental human rights with an intention to unify humanity. Hence, basing human rights activism on UN system would allow criticism of countries that are unable to realise the established principles. The UDHR tries to reconcile diverse goals and philosophies of individuals from various cultures.

Thus, it offers human rights activists a broad range of ideologies to base their activism. According to Simmons (2009), the UHDR has contributed to the formulation of multiple treaties that are recognised internationally. Thus, basing human rights activism on the UN system enables the activists to support their arguments through international law. Moreover, the activists can exploit the various international treaties, which are found on the UN human rights system.

The UN system does not offer a solution to any violation of human rights. Thus, basing human rights activism on the system may not bear fruits as activists would not provide remedies to the common problems. Not all human rights issues can be addressed through the UN system as it does not anticipate a majority to the contemporary challenges (Benhabib 2009). For instance, the system does not outline the rights for persons with HIV/AIDS. Moreover, it does not cater to the problems attributed to population growth.


The human suffering witnessed during the Second World War prompted the UN to look for ways to safeguard human rights. Before the development of the UDHR, the UN had made numerous attempts to introduce human rights laws into the Covenant of the League of Nations. The establishment of the UN Charter formed the foundation for the declaration. The UDHR is an essential document as it serves as a guide to constitutional makers. The majority of the national constitutions derive their human rights laws from the UDHR. Today, human rights systems have evolved to include the rights of children, persons with disabilities, refugees, women, and diplomatic agents among others.

Reference List

Benhabib, S 2009, ‘Claiming rights across borders: international human rights and democratic sovereignty’, American Political Science Review, vol. 103, no. 4, pp. 691-704.

Darraj, SM 2010, The universal declaration of human rights, Infobase Publishing, New York.

Donnelly, J 2013, Universal human rights in theory and practice, Cornell University Press, London.

Elsaidi, M 2011, ‘Human rights and Islamic law: a legal analysis challenging the husband’s authority to punish “rebellious” wives’, Muslim World Journal of Human Rights, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 44-53.

Hoover, J 2013, ‘Rereading the universal declaration of human rights: plurality and contestation, not consensus’, Journal of Human Rights, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 217-241.

Kayaoglu, T 2014, ‘Giving an inch only to lose a mile: Muslim states, liberalism, and human rights in the United Nations’, Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 61-89.

Kwon, K, Barnett, G & Chen, H 2009, ‘Assessing cultural differences in translation: a semantic network analysis of the universal declaration of human rights’, Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 107-138.

Morsink, J 2009, Inherent human rights: philosophical roots of the universal declaration, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Orgad, L 2010, ‘The preamble in constitutional interpretation’, International Journal of Constitutional Law, vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 714-738.

Simmons, B 2009, ‘Civil rights in international law: compliance with aspects of the “international bills of rights”’, Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 437-481.

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DemoEssays. "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights." December 30, 2022.