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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights - An Overview

By Dr Anthony Lewis, Chair of Windsor Humanists and Chair of the South Central England Humanists Network. In this article, Anthony summarises the key elements of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which clearly proclaims the primacy of individual human rights above those of any collective, organisational or national rights, with these personal rights forming the bedrock on which all other freedoms depend.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was proclaimed by the United Nations Assembly on 10th December 1948. It sets out the fundamental universal rights for all human beings regardless of culture, belief, background, sex, age, race or politics. It was a landmark document that has been adopted into more than seventy subsequent human rights agreements including the European Convention on Human Rights (1953).

The UDHR recognises the inherent dignity and equal inalienable rights of all members of the human family to freedom, liberty, justice and peace. It consists of 30 Articles which are summarised succinctly in the chart below produced by Human Rights Educators USA. These 30 Articles can be grouped into six areas:-

  1. Freedom and Liberty: everyone is born free with a right to live their lives securely, free from slavery, violence and torture (Articles 1 to 5).

  2. Justice and the Law: all people have a right to a fair trial equally under the Law, to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and to be free from arbitrary arrest, detention or exile (Articles 6 to 11).

  3. Individual Rights - every person has a right to a nationality, marriage, property ownership, privacy, asylum and freedom of movement, and to be free from persecution (Articles 12 to 17)

  4. Expression & Thought - all humans have a right to free peaceful association and assembly with freedom of belief, religion, thought, opinion and expression (Articles 18 to 20)

  5. Civil Society and Work - each of us has the right to work, leisure, cultural activity and education, with access to an adequate living standard, trade unions and social security (Articles 22 to 27)

  6. Mutual Responsibility and Respect - everyone is responsible for protecting the social order that provides the basis for the human rights of others as well as themselves, and no person or country can take away the rights in this declaration (Articles 27 and to 30)

The UDHR is not a treaty and it does not create legal obligations for UN member countries. However, it did declare for the first time that all human beings, regardless of where they are born, have an inalienable right to inherent dignity, and all have universal rights to life, liberty, free speech and privacy. It represents an ideal to which all countries should aspire, to secure the best life for all their citizens. It clearly puts the primacy of individual human rights above those of any collective, organisational or national rights, with these personal rights forming the bedrock on which all other freedoms depend.

"...all human beings regardless of where they are born have an inalienable right to dignity, and all have universal rights to life, liberty, free speech and privacy."

There has been much progress in implementing the principles contained in the UDHR in the seventy or so years since 1948 but, sadly, there is still much to do. The spread of democracy, women’s emancipation and decriminalisation of homosexuality all demonstrate both the progress made since 1948 and the huge challenges that remain.

The rise of democratic freedoms

Around half of the world's countries are democracies, as shown in the blue shading in the graph below. There was an uptick at the end of the Second World War and again at the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. But this trend has stalled in the last decade and there has been a slide back towards autocracy for a large part of humanity. For example, Russia and China have become more autocratic and authoritarian in recent years.

Woman's Emancipation

There are direct correlations between the emancipation of women, the reduction in infant mortality, falling fertility rates and increasing prosperity. The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW for short, was ratified by over twenty countries in 1981. The international charity WomenStats has produced a series of world maps that illustrate the dire state of women’s rights across the world. For example, nearly 80 per cent of women live in countries where they have few rights or protections as defined in the UN Convention. The red shading on their map indicates the countries where there are no laws consonant with the Convention, or virtually no enforcement of any such laws that do exist.

Criminalisation of Homosexuality

Gay men and lesbians still face severe persecution in many countries. Gay men still face the death penalty in twelve countries and homosexuality is still a criminal offence in at least 59 countries. On the other side of the coin, there are protections against discrimination in at least 156 countries, and some 43 countries where homosexuality is not a criminal offence. The Sexual Orientation Laws map, published by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) indicates that there is a clear link between Islamic theocracy and the death penalty for male homosexuality. The rights, or lack of rights, of gay and lesbian people is a good indicator of the general level of repression versus freedom in any given country.

"The UDHR represents a pivotal step towards corralling our more primitive violent instincts towards a more civilised future."

The Canadian-American cognitive psychologist and public intellectual Stephen Pinker argued in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (2010) that the story of human progress and flourishing has been one of reducing and progressively controlling the violent and aggressive instincts of human males through the rule of law, cultural practices and societal pressure. The UDHR represents a pivotal step in trying to corral our more primitive instincts towards a more civilised future. It provides a benchmark against which our progress can be measured. As illustrated by my three examples (democracy, women's rights, and gay rights), we do continue to make progress in the spread of many of the ideals contained in it but we still have a long way to go.

I do sometimes feel that we in the developed world have taken our eye off the ball with our somewhat self-indulgent culture wars (The Guardian article in the references below gives more background). I think we need to stop obsessing about identity politics and re-focus on championing the fundamental rights of all humanity. That job is far from done.

Links to Sources

UN Illustrated online booklet of the Declaration of Human Rights

Social media memes for each article of the UN Declaration of Human Rights that can be easily shared

UDHR Articles as summarised by the Human Rights Educators USA

Democracy - Our World in Data -

Women’s Rights World Maps compiled by WomenStats

The Better Angels of our Nature by Stephen Pinker reviewed in The Guardian

The Culture Wars explained in The Guardian

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1 Comment

Jesus Kummerow
Jesus Kummerow
Feb 07, 2023

Excellent review of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Very pedagogical approach when organizing each Human Right by category.

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