The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Ethical Issues in Humanitarian Intervention

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 The UN & Human Rights
  • 0:30 Background
  • 3:07 Significance & Impact
  • 5:11 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one of the most important documents in the modern world. Explore how and why it was created, as well as its significance. Then test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The UN and Human Rights

All right you, listen up while I read you your rights. Hope you've got some time because this list of rights contains 30 articles, not to mention a preamble. That's right; I'm talking about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a declaration adopted by the United Nations in 1948 that guarantees the basic rights afforded to all human beings, regardless of race, nationality, or anything else. Didn't know you had so many rights, did you? Well, it's about time you did. It's not like you're going anywhere.


All right, as long as you're just sitting there, we've got time to go way back and look at the history of this declaration. In the early 1940s, the world was at war. For the second time. Now, WWII was a brutal war, particularly in the genocide committed by Nazi Germany, and had people genuinely worried. In 1941, the American President Franklin Roosevelt defined WWII as a moral fight between good and evil, embodied in the defense of Four Freedoms, to which all human beings are naturally entitled. They are the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. There you go; the four things to which every single person should be entitled.

After the war ended, several nations came together, and in 1945, formed an international peacekeeping organization called the United Nations. The entire goal of the UN was to prevent another global war from ever occurring again, and they promised to do this by promoting universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

However, as more and more evidence surfaced, the world realized that the genocidal programs of the Nazis were even worse than people could have imagined, and the UN decided that it needed to create a formal declaration that explained exactly what those fundamental rights and freedoms entailed. So, in 1946, they set up a commission to draft a universal declaration of rights, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, former first lady and widow of FDR. From the get-go, the commission was caught up in debates about the nature of human rights; after all, nobody had ever written a universal declaration of rights before.

Some thought that the declaration should only include natural rights, those granted by God or nature, such as the rights to happiness, safety, and health. Others favored positive rights, or rights agreed upon by people through institutions like the law. This includes things like protection from racial discrimination. In the end, the Universal Declaration included both of these in its 30 articles describing the rights of all human beings. In 1948, the member states of the UN approved the declaration with a vote of 48-0, although 8 nations did abstain from voting for various reasons. Since then, the document has guided human rights issues around the world.

Significance and Impact

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the world's most translated document. With such high accolades, it may surprise you to find out that, legally, the Declaration doesn't really mean anything. It's not a treaty, so it's not legally binding. But does that make it meaningless? Absolutely not.

The entire goal of the Declaration was to define the terms ''fundamental freedoms'' and ''human rights,'' not to legally force nations to agree to any specific actions. In this regard, the Declaration has been incredibly influential, with parts of it being adopted into nearly every national constitution written since 1948, as well as most international laws, treaties, and other international agreements. And besides, people and nations are often held to standards that are not simply defined by law. The Declaration defined a moral obligation that all members of the UN are expected to uphold, and there can be some pretty strong international pressure to do so.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account