Friday, 17 July 2009

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Human Rights 

I’m a bit late to the party but I have just discovered that today is Bloggers Unite for Human Rights Day.  I’ve decided to share what I learned during my recent visit to the United Nations in New York.  I was quite surprised to find that certain things, like being able to rest from work, are addressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and I think you might be surprised by some of the items too. 

The UDHR was adopted and proclaimed by the United Nations on 10 December 1948.  It is important in that the UN was the first united body to adopt such a charter and member nations are urged to uphold these rights in their countries.  The UDHR is non-binding resolution though which means it does not pass into law.  I’ll talk about this in more detail later.

The language in the UDHR is quite grand and so I have taken the following simplified version from the website of Human Rights Education Associates:

Simplified Version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Summary of Preamble

The General Assembly recognizes that the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, human rights should be protected by the rule of law, friendly relations between nations must be fostered, the peoples of the UN have affirmed their faith in human rights, the dignity and the worth of the human person, the equal rights of men and women and are determined to promote social progress, better standards of life and larger freedom and have promised to promote human rights and a common understanding of these rights.

A summary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

1. Everyone is free and we should all be treated in the same way.

2. Everyone is equal despite differences in skin colour, sex, religion, language for example.

3. Everyone has the right to life and to live in freedom and safety.

4. No one has the right to treat you as a slave nor should you make anyone your slave.

5. No one has the right to hurt you or to torture you.

6. Everyone has the right to be treated equally by the law.

7. The law is the same for everyone, it should be applied in the same way to all.

8. Everyone has the right to ask for legal help when their rights are not respected.

9. No one has the right to imprison you unjustly or expel you from your own country.

10. Everyone has the right to a fair and public trial.

11. Everyone should be considered innocent until guilt is proved.

12. Every one has the right to ask for help if someone tries to harm you, but no-one can enter your home, open your letters or bother you or your family without a good reason.

13. Everyone has the right to travel as they wish.

14. Everyone has the right to go to another country and ask for protection if they are being persecuted or are in danger of being persecuted.

15. Everyone has the right to belong to a country. No one has the right to prevent you from belonging to another country if you wish to.

16. Everyone has the right to marry and have a family.

17. Everyone has the right to own property and possessions.

18. Everyone has the right to practise and observe all aspects of their own religion and change their religion if they want to.

19. Everyone has the right to say what they think and to give and receive information.

20. Everyone has the right to take part in meetings and to join associations in a peaceful way.

21. Everyone has the right to help choose and take part in the government of their country.

22. Everyone has the right to social security and to opportunities to develop their skills.

23. Everyone has the right to work for a fair wage in a safe environment and to join a trade union.

24. Everyone has the right to rest and leisure.

25. Everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living and medical help if they are ill.

26. Everyone has the right to go to school.

27. Everyone has the right to share in their community's cultural life.

28. Everyone must respect the 'social order' that is necessary for all these rights to be available.

29. Everyone must respect the rights of others, the community and public property.

30. No one has the right to take away any of the rights in this declaration.

- [Source:]

Some of these rights seem obvious, things that we take for granted. It is hard to imagine that people could take these rights away from us.  In my lifetime, I have lived through Apartheid South Africa where black people could not own property, could not vote in government elections, could not gain education above a certain level and were not able to apply for professional jobs that were reserved for white people.  They certainly could not travel freely within the country nor could they marry outisde of their colour. 

This was clearly in violation of several of the rights listed above and the United Nations imposed several layers of sanctions on South Africa which crippled the economy.  In the early 80’s, the government began to bow to this pressure, first repealing certain of these apartheid laws and then beginning a process of all-out reform.  This resulted in the unbanning of the ANC, the release of Mandela and the first democratic elections which saw the ANC gain power in 1994.

Change can happen and the United Nations has played a vitally important part in bringing about change in countries like South Africa.

So why are situations in Zimbabwe, Darfur and Sri Lanka being allowed to happen?  Zimbabwe, Sudan and Sri Lanka are all member states! 

“There has been criticism that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, who are all nuclear powers, have created an exclusive nuclear club whose powers are unchecked. Unlike the General Assembly, the United Nations Security Council does not have true international representation. This has led to accusations that the UNSC only addresses the strategic interests and political motives of the permanent members, especially in humanitarian interventions: for example, protecting the oil-rich Kuwaitis in 1991 but poorly protecting resource-poor Rwandans in 1994” - Wikipedia

It seems that one of the biggest factors at play is that it is diplomatically difficult for the United Nations to place political pressure on their member states.  Perhaps it is time to make the UDHR binding, to make member states reapply periodically for membership and adhere to a more stringent set of membership requirements?  Would that remove the diplomatic hurdle and spur the UN security forces into action?  I don’t know the answer to that question yet but I will keep you up to date on what I learn.



  1. Powerful persons are regularly invading other's human rights and, I know in India, the Human rights Organizations keep mum. What should we do?
    I know a triple murder was caused by electrocution due to negligence of the electricity distribution officials but paid a bribe to the police, who sent parents of the one pregnant girl who died in the mishap to jail on charges of murder. Since then, I left any hope of humanity's respectful survival.

  2. @ Ram: I emphasise with you on so many levels. Living in Africa for so long, I recall that feeling of having corrupt government and officials. Now, living in England, I see another uglier side to it: the rest of the world just doesn't care what happens to third world countries.


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