All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…
These are the opening words of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the embryonic United Nations General Assembly on 10th December 1948. In framing our rights, the text seeks to capture an essential truth of modern civilization – that the importance of every individual should be recognised by appropriate limits to the exercise of state power.
The language echoes the 1776 American Declaration of Independence and resonates still in 21st century mission statements of human rights campaign groups.
Article 2 translates the poetry of freedom into the solid principle of non-discrimination that protects disadvantaged groups in all international human rights law:
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion…
The 30 Articles are non-binding principles, intended to guide the detail of international human rights law by reference to universal values that transcend cultural and ideological divides. The Declaration recognises that, in return for their rights, individuals have responsibilities described as “duties to the community.”
The Articles were drafted at a time of painful reflection on the causes of the Second World War. Perhaps for this reason, they are dominated by civil and political rights. The compression of social and economic rights into Articles 22-27 bequeathed a lack of detail which may partly account for the continuing struggle to frame the global poverty reduction agenda by reference to rights rather than aspirations. Likewise, it is rare for international trade or investment agreements to pay attention to rights issues.
more Human Rights briefings (updated March 2018)
International Human Rights Law
Women’s Rights in International Law
Human Rights Law Enforcement
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