Why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Still Matters

Have you ever heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? It is most commonly associated with the UN, where it originated – it is indicative of the founding of the UN and its ongoing mission. It is a short document. There is a brief preamble, followed by 30 basic Articles that define human rights and show what a world without human rights violations would look like.

Despite being written more than 60 years ago, many of the Articles sound timeless. Article 3 mimics the Declaration of Independence, saying that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the security of person.” Article 4 prohibits slavery. Article 12 encourages privacy and protection. Article 2 starts by saying that all rights listed in the Declaration apply to all human beings, “without distinction of any kind.”

The UDHR was one of the first acts of the UN and proved to be one document that all the Assembly countries were swiftly willing to accept and build upon. It has been called a “Magna Carta for all humanity,” but few people today know what the UDHR says, or why it is important.

Purpose of the UDHR

The UDHR dates back to 1948, following the horror and violence of World War II. Governments around the world proved eager to prevent atrocities. It was the first international attempt to create an idea of essential human rights which were “universal and inalienable.” These declarations focus on key issues such as non-discrimination and freedom.

The 18 nations in charge of creating the UDHR knew that this would not be a short-term project. The UDHR was intended to constantly influence international law and UN action, adopting new importance as the the UN shifted to the EU. There is nothing legally binding in the UDHR, but it was expected to encourage all sorts of action through the UN/EU organizations. Based on that goal, the document saw great success. By 2000, it had inspired more than 60 human rights instruments that defined human rights or formed national treaties based on the same principles.

Ancient History: The UDHR Today

Not many people pay attention to the UDHR today. The reason is simple: It has accomplished its purpose. Today the UN has a massive list of Human Rights Issues and legislation that help govern international policy, many directly inspired by the tenets promoted by the UDHR. When nations need to reference material, they use these reports, laws, and committees instead of going back to the original UDHR.

This does not mean the UDHR is totally defunct. All 193 members of the UN have officially agreed with the Declaration, it is part of admittance. But in the highly complex, bureaucratic nature of international decisions today, it is rarely referenced. Other standards have been created. New issues have arisen and claimed the attention of the press and global nonprofits. The document is rarely taught in schools except as a brief UN history paragraph or a look at the cultural development of ethics.

The New Era of Human Rights: A Cornerstone Today and in the Future

The UDHR served as a catalyst, a cornerstone. It was a vision, not a playbook – the details came later. This does not mean the Declaration has lost its importance. It remains a cornerstone and its ideas were essential to the foundation of the stricter standards and treaties that followed in the decades after its creation.

For this reason, the UDHR remains vital to international development. Its general simplicity makes it applicable. There are ten treaty-based human rights bodies in the UN, all dealing with particulars such as torture, children’s rights, migrant workers, or discrimination against women. These committees can shift, disband and form to deal with the human rights problems of the present generation. The UDHR exists as a permanent support for these more adaptable bodies.

The UDHR also remains vitally important for societies across the world that do not recognize the Declaration or any international human rights standards. Studies show that less than 5 percent of the world knows that the UDHR even exists. Many of those who have never heard of it are those that most need basic human rights recognition.

Many of the people suffering because of human rights violations are children in extreme poverty – they are often illiterate and so they have no way to learn about international standards. Until the suffering of these groups is truly resolved, the UDHR remains actively important, serving as a beacon of hope and a vision statement for people in need. It has served as a cornerstone to human rights movements in the past, and can serve as an equally strong cornerstone for future movements.