THE UNIVERSAL Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10th, 1948, is 60 years old today. It is a deeply auspicious anniversary, given how the document has inspired intervening generations and remains "a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations", as its preamble states. Article 1 eloquently explains why this should be:
"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".
In the preamble to the UDHR governments committed themselves and their peoples to progressive measures to secure the universal and effective recognition and observance of the human rights set out. The chairman of the drafting committee, Eleanor Roosevelt, supported the adoption of the UDHR as a declaration, rather than as a treaty, because she believed it would have the same kind of moral influence throughout the world as the United States Declaration of Independence within the United States. This was a prescient insight. Even though it is not formally legally binding, the declaration has been adopted in or influenced most national constitutions since 1948. It also serves as the foundation and benchmark for international treaties and national laws and international, regional, national and sub-national institutions protecting and promoting human rights, including the European Union.
The declaration became even more influential after the end of the Cold War brought a more genuine universality to bear on human rights. Those events also accentuated abiding dilemmas between sovereignty and intervention, individual, collective and state rights, the correct balance between legal, political and socio-economic freedoms and between different cultural traditions. Part of the genius of the declaration is that it has been able to withstand such conflicting interpretations, as well as the glaring contradictions between the rights it proclaims and the everyday reality of oppression still suffered by so many of the world's peoples.
Eleanor Roosevelt also asked where universal human rights begin and provided the following answer:
"In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world".