Drafted between January 1947 and December 1948, the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights aimed to form a basis for human rights all over the world
and represented a significant change of direction from events during World
War II and the continuing colonialism that was rife in the world at the time.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is considered as the most translated
document in modern history. It is available in more than 360 languages and
new translations are still being added.
The UN General Assembly adopted and proclaimed the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, France, on the
December 10, 1948. All states and interested organizations were invited to mark
December 10 as Human Rights Day at a UN meeting on December 4, 1950. It was
first observed on December 10 that year and has been observed each year on the
same date. Each year Human Rights Day has a theme. Some of these themes have
focused on people knowing their human rights or the importance of human rights
The belief that everyone, by virtue of her or his humanity,
is entitled to certain human rights is fairly new. Its roots, however, lie in
earlier tradition and documents of many cultures; it took the catalyst of World
War II to propel human rights onto the global stage and into the global conscience.
Throughout much of history, people acquired rights and responsibilities
through their membership in a group – a family, indigenous nation, religion,
class, community, or state. Most societies have had traditions similar to the
"golden rule" of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto
you". The Hindu Vedas, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, the Bible, the
Quran (Koran), and the Analects of Confucius are five of the oldest written
sources which address questions of people’s duties, rights, and responsibilities.
In addition, the Inca and Aztec codes of conduct and justice and an Iroquois
Constitution were Native American sources that existed well before the 18th
century. In fact, all societies, whether in oral or written tradition, have
had systems of propriety and justice as well as ways of tending to the health
and welfare of their members.
The idea of human rights emerged stronger after World War II.
The extermination by Nazi Germany of over six million Jews, Sinti and Romani
(gypsies), homosexuals, and persons with disabilities horrified the world. Trials
were held in Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War II, and officials from the
defeated countries were punished for committing war crimes, "crimes against
peace," and "crimes against humanity".
First meeting of the Drafting Committee
on an International Bill of Rights
Governments then committed themselves to establishing the United
Nations, with the primary goal of bolstering international peace and preventing
conflict. People wanted to ensure that never again would anyone be unjustly
denied life, freedom, food, shelter, and nationality. The essence of these emerging
human rights principles was captured in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s
1941 State of the Union Address when he spoke of a world founded on four essential
freedoms: freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear (See
Using Human Rights Here & Now). The calls came from across the globe for
human rights standards to protect citizens from abuses by their governments,
standards against which nations could be held accountable for the treatment
of those living within their borders. These voices played a critical role in
the San Francisco meeting that drafted the United Nations Charter in 1945.
In the International Bill of Human Rights, the United Nations
has adopted more than 20 principal treaties further elaborating human rights.
These include conventions to prevent and prohibit specific abuses like torture
and genocide and to protect especially vulnerable populations, such as refugees
(Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951), women (Convention on
the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1979), and children
(Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989). As of 1997 the United States
has ratified only these conventions:
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the
Crime of Genocide.
The Convention on the Political Rights of Women.
The Slavery Convention of 1926.
The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman
or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Chair of the UN Human Rights Commission,
Eleanor Roosevelt, and Humphrey
In Europe, the Americas, and Africa, regional documents for
the protection and promotion of human rights extend the International Bill of
Human Rights. For example, African states have created their own Charter of
Human and People’s Rights (1981), and Muslim states have created the Cairo
Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (1990). The dramatic changes in Eastern
Europe, Africa, and Latin America since 1989 have powerfully demonstrated a
surge in demand for respect of human rights. Popular movements in China, Korea,
and other Asian nations reveal a similar commitment to these principles.