What it is: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a charter of civil and political rights which was drawn up and accepted by the United Nations in 1948. Here are some of its Articles:
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.
From 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.
Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
From Article 4: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.
Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
From Article 7: All are equal before the law and are entitled without discrimination to equal protection of the law.
Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
From Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
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.
From Article 21: Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
From Article 26: Everyone has the right to education. 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.

There is a United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNHCR) and 10 December each year, the anniversary of UN's adoption of UDHR, is Human Rights Day.

In 1950 the Council of Europe adopted the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) which came into force in 1953. It is binding on member states, with a procedure for enforcement by the European Commission of Human Rights, set up in 1954, and, the European Court of Human Rights, set up in 1959. In 1988 the UK Human Rights Act made the ECHR directly applicable in the UK courts, relieving the burden for UK citizens of having to apply to the European Commission or Court.

What it means: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is 'a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations'. It has no legal force, but it has often been invoked as if it has, and in 1968 an international conference agreed that the UDHR 'constitutes an obligation for the members of the international community'. Organisations such as the UNHCR, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch constantly monitor and report human rights abuses round the world. Many abuses are now illegal according to international law. The idea that human beings had rights simply because they were human beings was first given political expression in the 18th century, at the time of American independence and the French revolution. America's 'Declaration of Independence' began: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'. America's government, nevertheless, has withdrawn from international agreements on biological weapons, arms control and climate change, introduced laws hostile to the Declaration, undermined the establishment of an International Criminal Court, and embarked on a project for militarising space. The UK, too, claims support for human rights, yet is directly or indirectly responsible for many deaths in other countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Balkans. If it is agreed that 'everyone has the right to life', war is the most fundamental violation of that right. 

Think about it: If possible, read the short version of the whole document. Do you think it could be improved on? Some people have complained that it doesn't make allowances for a diversity of cultures and political ideas - it's essentially a 'Western' document. Others worry about the way individuals referred to are all 'he'. Yet others are concerned about what happens when one person/state's rights conflict with another's. But most people agree that the UDHR is at least a useful document to start from when trying to create a fair and peaceful world. In 1993 the World Conference on Human Rights acknowledged that human rights 'must be considered in the context of a dynamic and evolving process' of establishing universal principles, 'bearing in mind the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical and cultural backgrounds'. In short, people and nations have to keep talking to each other - and listening.

Universal Declaration| Full version | Short Version |

Here are some comments on the UDHR. What do you think about them?

'From the proposition that one has a right to do something it doesn't follow that it is a right thing to do.' (US philosopher)

'Without documents like the UDHR, the death of humanity is inevitable: it will tear itself apart with nuclear confrontation, religious conflict and national prejudice.' (Russian politician)

'Since the Declaration is an official document, it would make sense for it to become a condition of United Nations membership that every member state includes it in its constitution.' (Slovakian journalist)

'It is easier to accuse another state of failing to protect human rights than to make these rights the foundation of one's own state.' (Russian journalist)

'The history of human rights is marked by swings between those who maintain that major powers like America have a duty to intervene to promote freedom, democracy and self-determination, and those who believe that states should mind their own business.' (UK writer)

'Human rights often seem to be involved in trade-offs: murderous dictators able to strike deals, giving up slaughter in return for their general human rights record being ignored. Or human rights are offset against commercial interests. That is shameful.' (Polish writer)

'We still have widespread discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity, religious belief or sexual orientation, and there is still genocide. There are 50 countries with more than one fifth of the population living in absolute poverty. Poverty itself is a violation of basic human rights. (a former UN Commissioner for Human Rights)

'Freedom has at least two faces. To some it represents freedom of spirit and independence from authority. To others it signifies licence to do as you please at the expense of others: freedom from morality.' (Czech writer)