United Nations

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Universal Declaration of Human Rights


The Condition of All Human Beings

Rights of Individuals

Rights in Relation to Others

Spiritual, Public and Political Liberties

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Limitations and Duties

Alternative Statements of Human Rights



Appendix: Human Obligations





The United Nations (1945-) was formed after the end of World War II, which had seen the deaths of 45 million and unparalleled destruction of civil communities. With the goal of saving future generations from such disasters, the founding nations declared their belief in the dignity and worth of the human person and in fundamental human rights and freedoms. Stating that this belief is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, the nations pledged themselves to promote the rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This pledge entailed obligations that deserve to be made explicit.


Development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was carried out during 1947 and 1948 by the  United Nations Commission on Human Rights, created by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The first commission was made up of delegates from Australia, Belgium, Byelorussia, Chile, China, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Lebanon, Panama, Philippines, Ukraine, USSR, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, and Yugoslavia. It came up with a draft declaration whose main authors were John Humphrey, a Canadian law professor, René Cassin, a French Jew wounded in World War I and an expert in constitutional law, Peng-chun Chang, a Chinese scholar, poet and playwright (with a doctorate of philosophy), and Charles Malik, a Arab from Lebanon and a Orthodox professor of philosophy. The committee was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt from the United States.


Humphrey, Director of the UN Human Rights Division, was given the task of summarizing all past thinking on rights and freedoms, and producing a preliminary draft. His draft was then given to Cassin to add logical structure and a preamble. The Commission then debated each point and came up with a final draft. The contrasting viewpoints of Chang and Malik were particularly important in balancing secular and religious world views and were essential to achieving a truly universal document.


The Commission’s draft went to its parent body, the Economic and Social Council, which debated it for six weeks and then referred it without modification to the General Assembly's Third Committee on Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Affairs. This body included delegates from each nation in the UN. After 80 meetings and over 160 amendments, it placed the Declaration before the General Assembly.There it was adopted, with 50 member states voting for it, and abstentions by Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and the Soviet bloc. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a binding legal document but a statement of common aspirations. Nevertheless, it was attacked by the Soviet Union as interference with the domestic affairs of certain countries, and by the president of the American Bar Association as promoting state socialism. Later, Pope John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962 to consider how the Roman Catholic Church should adapt to the modern world, praised the Declaration as an “act of highest importance”.

In 1993, 171 countries affirmed their commitment to the Declaration. Since its publication, many new nations have incorporated reference to it into their own statements of constitutional rights.

This was a truly multicultural document, and it is worth noting specific positive contributions from different cultures. Carlos Romulo of the Philipines strongly  advocated ensuring that full rights were given to colonies or territories that were not-self-governing, in view of the discriminatory practices in such areas. In this he was supported by Mrs. Newlands of New Zealand, who pressed for explicit reference to the rights of people in such regions. Hansa Mehta of India played a large part in achieving prominence in the Declaration for equal rights for women and men. In this she was supported by Minerva Barnadino of the Dominican Republic.

Marriage rights differ among cultures, and were the subject of considerable discussion. With regard to the right to marry, Mexico proposed the phrase “without any limitation due to race, nationality, or religion”. This and other statements on marriage were objected to by Jamil Baroody of Saudi Arabian, who considered them to reflect Western Values. This was disputed by Chang of China and Hernan Santa Cruz of Chile. The Pakistan Delegation, led by Shaista Ikramulla, accepted equal rights in marriage on the understanding that equal rights did not mean identical rights. This was also Eleanor Roosevelt’s view. The Egyptian delegate accepted the language, noting that marriage limitations on the basis of race ( as in some states of the U.S.) were more shocking to his country than limitations based on religion or nationality.

Rights relating to religion were also subject to much discussion. Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, foreign minister of Pakistan, gave full support to the right to religious freedom, citing a passage from the Koran “Let him who chooses to believe, believe, and him who chooses to disbelieve, disbelieve.” He agreed with the right to change religions, considering this consistent with Islam, which itself was a proselytizing religion. Another Muslim, Mohammed Habib from India, supported the statement as it was consistent with the new Indian constitution. Wahid Raafat of Eqypt said that his country, while not agreeing entirely with the right, would support it. Malik, of Lebanon, also supported the right to change one’s religion, but Jamil Baroody of Saudi Arabia objected to it. This and the rights in marriage may have been why Saudi Arabia abstained from voting for the Declaration.

A number of delegates tried to change the term used in social rights from “social security” to “social justice”, because the former term often had a limited meaning of applying to people who were unable to work because of incapacity. Syria had suggested the term “social justice”. Saudi Arabia also favored this term because it was more closely related to the Muslim system of zakat, which had been in operation for 14 centuries.

Cuba was largely responsible for inclusion of the special needs of families in the right to an adequate standard of living. In the right to education, the statement that education should promote tolerance, understanding, and respect for human rights had been proposed by the World Jewish Congress. It is worth noting in passing that the drafting committee had in Cassin an active supporter of establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, and in Malik it had a spokesman for the Arab League. That these two could work in harmony says a lot for the depth of concern for world peace at that time.

Ecuador was responsible for the right that no one should be subject to arbitrary exile. The right of return to one’s own country was proposed by Lebanon.  Mexico advocated the right to a hearing for acts in violation of fundamental rights under national law. All of the Latin American states also contributed via the Bogota Declaration of Rights and Duties, which was an important source document.

The full text of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights appears below. When it was adopted, the Assembly called upon all Member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and "to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories."


In its official form, the Declaration does not have the major subheadings that are shown here, other than "Preamble". The subheadings inserted here reflect an interpretation of the structure of the Declaration put forward by René Cassin. The first two articles are not so much rights as a statement of the nature of human beings. Cassin would have preferred to include Article 29 with this group, as it states duties and limitations rather than rights. If this had been done, it would have drawn greater attention to the fact that rights have duties associated with them.


Because the obligations entailed by rights often fail to be recognized, a declaration of obligations has been developed from the Declaration of Rights, and is set out in the Appendix.




Universal Declaration of Human Rights





Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,


Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,


Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,


Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,


Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,


Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,


Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,


Now, Therefore the General Assembly proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.



The Condition of All Human Beings


Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.


Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.



Rights of Individuals


Article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.


Article 4.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.


Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.


Article 6.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.


Article 7.

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.


Article 8.

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.


Article 9.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.


Article 10.

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.


Article 11.

(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.



Rights in Relation to Others


Article 12.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.


Article 13.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.


Article 14.

(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.


Article 15.

(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.


Article 16.

(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.


Article 17.

(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.



Spiritual, Public and Political Liberties


Article 18.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.


Article 19.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.


Article 20.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.


Article 21.

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.



Economic, Social and Cultural Rights


Article 22.

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.


Article 23.

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.


Article 24.

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.


Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.


Article 26.

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.


Article 27.

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.


Article 28.

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.



Limitations and Duties


Article 29.

(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.


Article 30.

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.



Alternative Statements of Human Rights    

Other organizations have put forward alternative statements of human rights but these fail to serve as a foundation for global agreement because they promote one particular world view. For example, the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam affirms the historic role of the Islamic Ummah "which God made the best nation".

Its Article 1 states that all human beings form one family whose members are united by submission to God and descent from Adam. Article 24 states that all the rights and freedoms stipulate in the Islamic Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’ah. This elevates the Islamic law of the Shari’ah above the Declaration, so that it negates any right set forward at Cairo, and automatically discriminates against non-Muslims.

The Islamic Declaration is clearly an internal Islamic document and does not promote understanding and tolerance among different belief systems as a necessary step towards world peace.

Arguments have also been made that different value systems—African values, or Asian values—must necessarily form the basis for human rights declarations in non-Western countries, and that the U.N. Declaration is not really a global document but represents Western values alone. However, as noted above, the development of that Declaration had truly global support. In contrast, the proponents of alternative value systems tend to be authoritarian governments intent on suppressing indigenous democratic movements within their states. This, of course, is not a peculiarly African or Asian value, but has appeared in the past in Western states. Such systems have little to offer in enlarging common moral values for the promotion of world peace.

A detailed discussion of progress in human rights, with recommendations for various forms of enhanced support took place in Vienna at the U.N. World Conference of Human Rights in 1993 . The Conference recognized that democracy, development, and respect for human rights were interdependent and mutually reinforcing, and asserted that the right to economic development was a fundamental human right. It also stressed that women, children, the disabled, migrant workers, and indigenous people should be able to exercise and enjoy full human rights. For the most part, however, the Conference dwelt on the duties or obligations essential to protecting human rights throughout the world.



The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was developed by a group of people from many nations and beliefs drawing on their knowledge of history, their familiarity with previous declarations, and their experience of the atrocities and human suffering caused by political and religious doctrines in the first half of the Twentieth Century. It was produced by a wide ranging exchange of opinions, not by scientific demonstration or logical analysis. It also did not depend on divine revelation, although it drew on both religious and secular history. It was a statement of belief in rights, achieved by open and peaceful discussion between people holding opposing views. It would be very difficult to duplicate this process to update the Declaration.

In summing up its processes of creation, Abdul Rahman Kavaly of Syria praised the document in spite of imperfections, noting that it was the work of generations of human beings who had worked towards its formulation.




The Universal Declaration of Human Rights  Adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, Paris, 1948.  Also available at the United Nations web site.


A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Mary Ann Glendon, Random House, New York, 2000.


Human Rights: Comments and Interpretations: a Symposium, edited by UNESCO; with an introduction by Jacques Maritain. Alan Wingate, London, 1949.


 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, Adopted and Issued at the Nineteenth Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers in Cairo, 5 August 1990. 


 Declaration and Programme of Action, World Conference on Human rights, Vienna, 1993. 





Click on the above heading for a list of obligations entailed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Introduction Copyright © Rex Pay 2005, 2007