During World War II, the Allies adopted the Four Freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want—as their basic war aims. The United Nations Charter "reaffirmed faith in fundamental human rights, and dignity and worth of the human person" and committed all member states to promote "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion".
When the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany became apparent after World War II, the consensus within the world community was that the United Nations Charter did not sufficiently define the rights to which it referred. A universal declaration that specified the rights of individuals was necessary to give effect to the Charter's provisions on human rights.
In June 1946, the UN Economic and Social Council established the Commission on Human Rights, which consisted of 18 members from various nationalities and political backgrounds. The Commission on Human Rights, a standing body of the United Nations, was constituted to undertake the work of preparing what was initially conceived as an International Bill of Rights.
The commission established a special Universal Declaration of Human Rights Drafting Committee, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, to write the articles of the Declaration. The committee met in two sessions over the course of two years.
Canadian John Peters Humphrey, Director of the Division of Human Rights within the United Nations Secretariat, was called upon by the United Nations Secretary-General to work on the project and became the Declaration's principal drafter. At the time, Humphrey was newly appointed as Director of the Division of Human Rights within the United Nations Secretariat.
Other well-known members of the drafting committee included René Cassin of France, Charles Malik of Lebanon, P. C. Chang of the Republic of China (Taiwan),. Humphrey provided the initial draft which became the working text of the Commission.
According to Allan Carlson in Globalizing Family Values, the Declaration's pro-family phrases were the result of the Christian Democratic movement's influence on Cassin and Malik.
Once the committee finished its work in May 1948, the draft was further discussed by the Commission on Human Rights, the Economic and Social Council, the Third Committee of the General Assembly before being put to vote in December 1948. During these discussions many amendments and propositions were made by UN Member States.
British representatives were extremely frustrated that the proposal had moral but no legal obligation. (It was not until 1976 that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights came into force, giving a legal status to most of the Declaration.)a
On 10 December 1948, the Universal Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly by a vote of 48 in favor, none against, and eight abstentions (the Soviet Union, Ukrainian SSR, Byelorussian SSR, People's Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, People's Republic of Poland, Union of South Africa, Czechoslovakia, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). Honduras and Yemen—both members of UN at the time—failed to vote or abstain. South Africa's position can be seen as an attempt to protect its system of apartheid, which clearly violated any number of articles in the Declaration. The Saudi Arabian delegation's abstention was prompted primarily by two of the Declaration's articles: Article 18, which states that everyone has the right "to change his religion or belief"; and Article 16, on equal marriage rights. The six communist nations abstentions centred around the view that the Declaration did not go far enough in condemning fascism and Nazism. Eleanor Roosevelt attributed the abstention of the Soviet bloc nations to Article 13, which provided the right of citizens to leave their countries.
48 countries voted in favour of the Declaration:a. ^ Despite the central role played by the Canadian John Peters Humphrey, the Canadian Government at first abstained from voting on the Declaration's draft, but later voted in favor of the final draft in the General Assembly.
8 countries abstained:
Later on, other countries joined.
The underlying structure of the Universal Declaration was introduced in its second draft, which was prepared by René Cassin. Cassin worked from a first draft, which was prepared by John Peters Humphrey. The structure was influenced by the Code Napoléon, including a preamble and introductory general principles.
Cassin compared the Declaration to the portico of a Greek temple, with a foundation, steps, four columns, and a pediment. Articles 1 and 2 are the foundation blocks, with their principles of dignity, liberty, equality, and brotherhood. The seven paragraphs of the preamble—setting out the reasons for the Declaration—represent the steps. The main body of the Declaration forms the four columns. The first column (articles 3–11) constitutes rights of the individual such as the right to life and the prohibition of slavery. Articles 6 through 11 refer to the fundamental legality of human rights with specific remedies cited for their defense when violated. The second column (articles 12–17) constitutes the rights of the individual in civil and political society (including such things as freedom of movement). The third column (articles 18–21) is concerned with spiritual, public, and political freedoms such as freedom of association, thought, conscience, and religion. The fourth column (articles 22–27) sets out social, economic, and cultural rights. In Cassin's model, the last three articles of the Declaration provide the pediment which binds the structure together. These articles are concerned with the duty of the individual to society and the prohibition of use of rights in contravention of the purposes of the United Nations Organisation.
The adoption of the Universal Declaration is a significant international commemoration marked each year on 10 December, and is known as Human Rights Day or International Human Rights Day. The commemoration is observed by individuals, community and religious groups, human rights organizations, parliaments, governments, and the United Nations. Decadal commemorations are often accompanied by campaigns to promote awareness of the Declaration and human rights. 2008 marked the 60th anniversary of the Declaration, and was accompanied by year-long activities around the theme "Dignity and justice for all of us".
The Guinness Book of Records describes the Declaration as the world's "Most Translated Document" (501 different translations). In its preamble, governments commit themselves and their people to progressive measures which secure the universal and effective recognition and observance of the human rights set out in the Declaration. Eleanor Roosevelt supported the adoption of the Declaration as a declaration rather than as a treaty because she believed that it would have the same kind of influence on global society as the United States Declaration of Independence had within the United States. In this, she proved to be correct. Even though it is not legally binding, the Declaration has been adopted in or has influenced most national constitutions since 1948. It has also served as the foundation for a growing number of national laws, international laws, and treaties, as well as for a growing number of regional, sub national, and national institutions protecting and promoting human rights.
While not a treaty itself, the Declaration was explicitly adopted for the purpose of defining the meaning of the words "fundamental freedoms" and "human rights" appearing in the United Nations Charter, which is binding on all member states. For this reason, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a fundamental constitutive document of the United Nations. In addition, many international lawyers believe that the Declaration forms part of customary international law and is a powerful tool in applying diplomatic and moral pressure to governments that violate any of its articles. The 1968 United Nations International Conference on Human Rights advised that the Declaration "constitutes an obligation for the members of the international community" to all persons. The Declaration has served as the foundation for two binding UN human rights covenants: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The principles of the Declaration are elaborated in international treaties such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and many more. The Declaration continues to be widely cited by governments, academics, advocates, and constitutional courts, and by individuals who appeal to its principles for the protection of their recognised human rights.
The Universal Declaration has received praise from a number of notable people. The Lebanese philosopher and diplomat Charles Malik called it "an international document of the first order of importance", while Eleanor Roosevelt—first chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) that drafted the Declaration—stated that it "may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere." In a speech on 5 October 1995, Pope John Paul II called the Declaration "one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time" but the Vatican never adopted the Declaration. In a statement on 10 December 2003 on behalf of the European Union, Marcello Spatafora said that the Declaration "placed human rights at the centre of the framework of principles and obligations shaping relations within the international community."
Turkey—a secular state with an overwhelmingly Muslim population—signed the Declaration in 1948. However, the same year, Saudi Arabia abstained from the ratification vote on the Declaration, claiming that it violated Sharia law. Pakistan—which had signed the declaration—disagreed and critiqued the Saudi position. In 1982, the Iranian representative to the United Nations, Said Rajaie-Khorassani, said that the Declaration was "a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition" which could not be implemented by Muslims without conflict with Sharia. On 30 June 2000, members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (now the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) officially resolved to support the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, an alternative document that says people have "freedom and right to a dignified life in accordance with the Islamic Shari'ah", without any discrimination on grounds of "race, colour, language, sex, religious belief, political affiliation, social status or other considerations".
A number of scholars in different fields have expressed concerns with the Declaration's alleged Western bias. These include Irene Oh, Abdulaziz Sachedina, Riffat Hassan, and Faisal Kutty. Hassan has argued:
What needs to be pointed out to those who uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be the highest, or sole, model, of a charter of equality and liberty for all human beings, is that given the Western origin and orientation of this Declaration, the "universality" of the assumptions on which it is based is – at the very least – problematic and subject to questioning. Furthermore, the alleged incompatibility between the concept of human rights and religion in general, or particular religions such as Islam, needs to be examined in an unbiased way.
Irene Oh argues that one solution is to approach the issue from the perspective of comparative (descriptive) ethics.
Kutty writes: "A strong argument can be made that the current formulation of international human rights constitutes a cultural structure in which western society finds itself easily at home ... It is important to acknowledge and appreciate that other societies may have equally valid alternative conceptions of human rights." On the other hand, others have written that some of these "cultural arguments" can go so far as to undermine the very nature of human freedom and choice, the protection of which is the purpose of the UN declaration. For example, typical versions of Sharia law forbid Muslims from leaving Islam under the penalty of capital punishment. Islamic legal scholar Faisal Kutty argues that existing blasphemy laws in Muslim countries are actually un-Islamic and are a legacy of colonial rule. Mohsen Haredy, an Islamic scholar, states that Muslim countries have their own views of Sharia and blasphemies are the internal issues of those countries.
Ironically, a number of Islamic countries that as of 2014 are among the most resistant to UN intervention in domestic affairs, played an invaluable role in the creation of the Declaration, with countries such as Syria and Egypt having been strong proponents of the universality of human rights and the right of countries to self-determination.
Groups such as Amnesty International and War Resisters International have advocated for "The Right to Refuse to Kill" to be added to the Universal Declaration. War Resisters International has stated that the right to conscientious objection to military service is primarily derived from—but not yet explicit in—Article 18 of the UDHR: the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
Steps have been taken within the United Nations to make this right more explicit, but —to date (2015)— those steps have been limited to less significant United Nations documents. Sean MacBride—Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Nobel Peace Prize laureate—has said: "To the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights one more might, with relevance, be added. It is 'The Right to Refuse to Kill'."
The American Anthropological Association criticized the UDHR while it was in its drafting process. The AAA warned that the document would be defining universal rights from a Western paradigm which would be unfair to countries outside of that scope. They further argued that the West's history of colonialism and Evangelicalism made them a problematic moral representative for the rest of the world. They proposed three notes for consideration with underlying themes of cultural relativism: "1. The individual realizes his personality through his culture, hence respect for individual differences entails a respect for cultural differences", "2. Respect for differences between cultures is validated by the scientific fact that no technique of qualitatively evaluating cultures has been discovered", and "3. Standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt to formulate postulates that grow out of the beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any Declaration of Human Rights to mankind as a whole."
During the lead up to the World Conference on Human Rights held in 1993, ministers from Asian states adopted the Bangkok Declaration, reaffirming their governments' commitment to the principles of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They stated their view of the interdependence and indivisibility of human rights and stressed the need for universality, objectivity, and non-selectivity of human rights. However, at the same time, they emphasized the principles of sovereignty and non-interference, calling for greater emphasis on economic, social, and cultural rights—in particular, the right to economic development over civil and political rights. The Bangkok Declaration is considered to be a landmark expression of the Asian values perspective, which offers an extended critique of human rights universalism.
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) is nonpartisan, nonsectarian, and independent of any government, and its core mandate is to promote respect for all the rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
In 1988, director Stephen R. Johnson and 41 international animators, musicians, and producers created a 20-minute video for Amnesty International to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration. The video was to bring to life the Declaration's 30 articles.
Amnesty International celebrated Human Rights Day and the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration all over the world by organizing the "Fire Up!" event.
The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) is a non-profit, nonsectarian organization whose work around the world is guided by the values of Unitarian Universalism and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It works to provide disaster relief and promote human rights and social justice around the world.
The Quaker United Nations Office and the American Friends Service Committee work on many human rights issues, including improving education on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They have developed a Curriculum to help introduce High School students to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In 1997, the council of the American Library Association (ALA) endorsed Article 19 from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Along with Article 19, Article 18 and 20 are also fundamentally tied to the ALA Universal Right to Free Expression and the Library Bill of Rights. Censorship, the invasion of privacy, and interference of opinions are human rights violations according to the ALA.
Youth for Human Rights International (YHRI) is a non-profit organization founded in 2001 by Mary Shuttleworth, an educator born and raised in apartheid South Africa, where she witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of discrimination and the lack of basic human rights. The purpose of YHRI is to teach youth about human rights, specifically the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and inspire them to become advocates for tolerance and peace. YHRI has now grown into a global movement, including hundreds of groups, clubs and chapters around the world.