History of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations, it is stated that the Peoples of the United Nations are determined “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”

This theme is amplified by Article 55 of the Charter which emphasizes the importance of the promotion of “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion” for “the creation of conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.”

According to a UN history of the Universal Declaration, “World leaders decided to complement the UN Charter with a road map to guarantee the rights of every individual everywhere. The document they considered, and which would later become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was taken up at the first session of the General Assembly in 1946.”

Article 68 of the Charter obliged the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to “set up a commission or commissions for the promotion of human rights.”ECOSOC is one of the six main organs of the United Nations established by Article 7 of the UN Charter and “is the principal body for coordination, policy review, policy dialogue and recommendations on economic, social and environmental issues, as well as for implementation of the internationally agreed development goals.”

In 1946, ECOSOC established the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (now called the Human Rights Council) as a subsidiary body “to weave the international legal fabric that protects our fundamental rights and freedoms.” At its first session in 1947, the Commission established a drafting committee to begin drafting an International Bill of Human Rights. The drafting committee originally consisted of Eleanor Roosevelt of the USA, Pen-Chun Chang of China and Charles Malik of Lebanon. Later that year the drafting committee was expanded to include representatives from Australia, Chile, France, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. The task of formulating a preliminary draft was given to John Humphrey, Director of the UN Secretariat’s Division for Human Rights, from Canada.

In May,1948, the drafting committee submitted a report to the Commission containing a draft International Declaration of Human Rights and a draft International Covenant of Human Rights. The Commission adopted the draft Declaration 12 votes in favour and 4 abstentions (Byelorussian SSR, Ukrainian SSR, USSR and Yugoslavia) and submitted a report to ESOSOC. On August 26, 1948, members of ESOSOC adopted a resolution without vote, transmitting the draft Declaration of Human Rights to the General Assembly.

In September 1948, the General Assembly referred the draft Declaration to its Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural matters). The Third Committee spent 81 meetings discussing the draft, including168 resolutions containing amendments. The draft was adopted by the Third Committee by a vote of 29 in favour and 7 abstentions (Byelorussian SSR, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukrainian SSR, USSR and Yugoslavia).

The report from the Third Committee was considered during plenary meetings of the General Assembly on December 9 and 10, 1948. Amendments submitted by the USSR were rejected in a roll call vote. However, an amendment proposed by the United Kingdom was adopted that called for a change in language to clarify “that the Declaration applied to all persons regardless of their jurisdiction, whether an independent state, trust or non-self-governing territory.” On 10 December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted with 48 members in favour and 8 abstaining (Byelorussian SSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Ukrainian SSR, Union of South Africa, USSR and Yugoslavia).

According to World Health Organization summaries, even before the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (at the time a non-legally binding document), “broad agreement existed that the rights which were to be enshrined in the Declaration were to be transformed into legally binding obligations through the negotiation of one or more treaties. In 1966, two separate treaties, covering almost entirely all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were adopted after approximately 20 years of negotiations: one for civil and political rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and one for economic, social and cultural rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).”

Together, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ICCPR and the ICESCR, are sometimes referred to as the International Bill of Rights. According to a UN FactSheet, these three instruments “enshrine global human rights standards and have been the inspiration for more than 50 supplemental United Nations human rights conventions, declarations and bodies of international minimum rules and other universally recognized principles. These additional standards have further refined international legal norms relating to a very wide range of issues, including women’s rights, protection against racial discrimination, protection of migrant workers, the rights of children, and many others.”

The Universal Declaration is not a treaty, so it does not directly create legal obligations for countries. However, it is an expression of the fundamental values which are shared by all members of the international community. And it has had a profound influence on the development of international human rights law. Most international experts argue that because governments and courts have consistently invoked the Declaration for more than sixty-five years, it has become binding as a part of customary international law.