The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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  • 0:01 The UN & Human Rights
  • 0:30 Background
  • 3:07 Significance & Impact
  • 5:11 Lesson Summary
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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.

Background

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.

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