Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Articles 1 to 10 - An Interpretation
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Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Articles 1 to 10 – An Interpretation
“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a yardstick by which to measure the degree of respect for, and compliance with, international human rights standards”
Throughout this essay I will deal with the Declaration itself, the context in which it was written, commentaries for and against and my own opinions and thoughts on it.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) on the 10th of December 1948 in resolution 217 A III, with 48 votes for and 8 abstentions. It was proclaimed “as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”. The Declaration consists of a preamble and 30 articles setting forth the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, which were assumed by many since as long ago as ancient Babylon. This interpretive essay deals with the first ten articles only, however in order to understand them better we need to place them in the context in which they were written. The rights proclaimed in the UDHR fall into two categories: civic and political rights and economic and social rights. The first ten fall into the former category, these rights have been recognised in constitutions and laws throughout the world ever since 1948. Since then it has been and “rightly and continues to be, the most important and far-reaching of all UN declarations, and a fundamental source of inspiration for national and international efforts to promote and to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms”1. The declaration’s 3 principle drafters were J. P. Humphrey, R. Cassin and Eleanor Roosevelt (wife of the late US president); the latter headed an 8 member drafting committee for the declaration. When the UDHR was written it was intended for “every individual and every organ of society”2, and its motivation was to “turn naturalistic nonsense into hard-nosed positive rights”
The first ten articles deal directly with life and its rights, article 1 expresses the basic principle: the right to a free and equal life. Article 2 states the essential principle: the right to the said life without discrimination. Articles 3 to 10 express the freedoms and fundamental rights of the person, the most influential of which are articles 3, 4 and 5.
Article 3 – the right to life has been endeavoured to be promoted by the UN in such ways as: preparing international conventions that make the taking of life a crime, promoting the abolition of capital punishment, calling upon governments to end arbitrary executions and formulating measures to prevent acts of international terrorism. “The safeguarding of the right to life is an essential condition for the enjoyment of the entire range of economic, social and cultural, as well as civil and political rights”1. Article 4 and 5 – the right to life without slavery or suppression and the right to life without torture, respectively, are significant because they have led to a large number of subsequent treaties and conventions.
This is a preview of the whole essay
In the 55 years since the UDHR was adopted it has received worldwide acclaim. Although “it is not a treaty and it is not intended to impose legal obligations” nevertheless “its real force lies in the fact that it is a proclamation, supported by the vote of almost all the nations of the world” therefore it possesses a very great moral authority. What many people mistakenly assume is that the UDHR holds some legal authority, it does not, it is a recommendation and a set of standards for states. The legal authority comes from the conventions and treaties that have followed and drawn inspiration from it. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is the legitimising action making the UDHR binding on member states; there have also been other such covenants. A regional area in which the Declaration has had an undoubted effect is in the European Convention on Human Rights signed in Rome on the 4th of November 1950, in the preamble it states “Considering the proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December 1948” and also goes on to add “Considering that the aim of the Council of Europe is the achievement of greater unity between its Members and that one of the methods by which the aim is to be pursued is the maintenance and further realization of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”6. The reader might note that it says “further realisation”, this is because by 1950 it had become apparent to many, including the Council of Europe that the UDHR lacked vital passages which were needed in order to fully promote universal human rights. For example article 5 – 2. “Everyone who is arrested shall be informed promptly, in a language which he understands, of the reasons for his arrest and the charge against him”6 is not included in the UDHR but, as all would agree, is a necessary and just right.
Other conventions that are linked to the UDHR are the Roosevelt Declaration: declaring, "freedom is the existence of human rights everywhere", the Atlantic Charter: "freedom of opinion, of expression, of religion and the right to basic needs"7 and the International Labour Organisation Constitution setting forth “the concerns of member states and their citizens regarding human rights”7.
Some may wonder why so many more recent conventions and treaties have included and referred to the UDHR, the answer is simple, it is because it provides the basic philosophy for many legally binding, international instruments designed to protect the rights and freedoms which it proclaims. As the Department of Public Information of the UN says “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states a common understanding of the peoples of the world concerning the inalienable and inviolable rights of all members of the human family”.
Not only is it included in many conventions, the Declaration is also widely cited by academics and advocates worldwide, for the simple reason that it is the first international statement to use the term ‘human rights’. Throughout the last 55 years it has become a common reference and has set the direction for all subsequent work in the field of human rights for all nations, even those not in the western world. Many historians and political commentators have criticised the UDHR for not applying enough to the non-western world, the following paragraph deals with these critiques.
The UDHR has been acclaimed and criticised for its contents and consequent application, mostly it has been condemned for its ethnocentric origin. Pollis and Schwab claim that it is “based on western political philosophy providing only one particular interpretation of human rights, which may not be applicable to non-western areas”. They maintain this for 2 reasons, firstly because of ideological differences; the values of the UDHR are democratic and libertarian and thus, these authors ascertain that they would not apply to a communist state (Pollis and Schwab were writing at the time of the Cold War). Secondly they make this claim because of cultural differences; the UDHR was written mainly by western-based authors and based on the values of a western society, which Pollis and Schwab believe does not fit a Middle Eastern or an Asian society. Up to a point this interpretation can be justified because the application of the UDHR in non-western countries has frequently meant that legal norms lack the substantive meaning that such rights have in the West. Mulgan goes further to say that the UDHR is a “neo-colonialist document along the line of the Bible” he also adds that it is a “dangerous and hypocritical document which trivialises the language of human rights”10. He explains this by saying “the fact that man’s economic, cultural and political backgrounds are so widely disparate gives rise to serious doubts about the value of the UDHR”10. I would argue against this and say that it is because of the widely diverse backgrounds of every individual in the international community that the UDHR works, the Declaration was not written to protect one type of person or one type of culture, it is there to promote the rights of all regardless of race, gender, religion or cultural heritage.
Another criticism of the UDHR is that it is not legally binding and therefore has no influence on maintaining the standards of worldwide human rights. R. Wild argues this; that because the UN does not have the power to enforce the articles of the Declaration it is therefore invalid and has no real place in the collection of legally binding documents and treaties working for the promotion of human rights. Others have gone on to offer more severe criticisms, saying that the UDHR is vague and uses sweeping language, that it provides “uncertainty as to how and by whom the declaration is to be implemented” and it fails to limit itself to fundamental issues. I am under the opinion that while a powerful and influential document, “if it is valid that there is no universal consensus on the meaning of human rights then the efforts to enforce the UDHR in states that do not accept its underlying principles, are bound to fail”.
So far I have offered few personal opinions on the UDHR, if this interpretation is to be valid and compelling then it is necessary for me to do so and to explain what cultural and societal influences have led to this outlook. I believe that it was written with good intent and I know that it was meticulously planned and debated, evidence from transcripts of the debate shows us this. Looking at the articles themselves we can see that they express the fundamental beliefs of all rational and liberal individuals. At first we might think, when reading, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” this is obvious, of course everyone has the right to life. What makes the UDHR so important and pioneering is the fact that for the first time in the history of human rights and human conscience these anciently assumed rights were written down in an official international document. And although it is not legally binding it has still had more influence on the behaviour of the international community than any other document before or since. Before the UDHR many of the atrocities of the twentieth century would have gone unrecognised and unpunished, however since 1948 and the legally binding documents which emanated from the UDHR, there has been a precedent and a method of recognising and punishing human rights violations. Even if we only concentrate on the first ten articles we can still see an unprecedented approach to human rights, in dealing with slavery, torture, equality and justice. Many supporters of the Declaration would argue that the reason this document is so essential is because, other than the UDHR, no universal consensus on human rights exist. I would agree wholeheartedly with this view, hoping that a universal consensus can be reached (unlikely looking at history) and thus support the aims and motivations of the UDHR.
Nevertheless, I am not blind to the problems with the UDHR, not least of which that it is entirely ideological and irrational. This is unfortunately because we live in cruel and rationally realistic world, it would be nice to think, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. However all rational adults realise that this will never be the case while we live in a world with political oppressors and totalitarian regimes. Instead in this case and many others the UDHR serves as an aspiration for mankind, we would (hopefully) all like to live in a world with no torture or inhuman treatment and thus we aspire to live in that said world. Another criticism of the Declaration that one cannot help but to agree with, is that it does not offer any practical suggestions for helping the present situation. The document only says what should be the case, not how and in what way these changes should be carried out, to achieve the utopian society that the UDHR suggests.
The last paragraph appears to be overly critical of the document, this was not intended to be the case, and I do believe that the UDHR is essentially a sound and intelligently thought out document. The cultural and societal influences that have led to this conclusion are as follows: I am Scottish by origin, lived for 12 years in England and then lived for 6 years in The Netherlands. I am reasonably well travelled, having visited almost every country in Europe, however the greatest influence over my political thinking originates from my duration in Holland. I attended an international school containing 68 nationalities and thus was constantly surrounded by many international influences. While in The Netherlands I participated in several Model United Nations conferences, most importantly of which was The Hague International Model United Nations (THIMUN), which taught me a lot especially about human rights, and thus my outlook has been greatly influenced by it.
In conclusion it can be said that the UDHR is essentially a good document, it provides us with a set of guidelines which we can follow with reasonable fidelity however the main problem with it is, that the UDHR was predicted on the assumption that Western values are paramount and ought to be extended to the non-western world, this has of course not been done, and will continue not to be done while we still segregate the world into West, Third World etc.
- Human Rights: Cultural and Ideological Perspectives – A. Pollis & P. Schwab (Praeger publishers 1979)
- The United Nations and Human Rights – Department of Public Information (United Nations 1984)
- Human Rights in Retrospect – Rt. Hon. Sir Richard Wild: Essays on Human Rights – K. J. Keith (Victoria University, Wellington 1968)
- The Theory of Human Rights – R. G. Mulgan: Essays on Human Rights – K. J. Keith (Victoria University, Wellington 1968)
- The End of Human Rights – Costas Douzinas (Hart Publishing, Oregon 2000)
United Nations Department of Public Information 1984
Preamble; UDHR 10.12.48
C. Douzinas 2000
Eleanor Roosevelt quoted by A. Pollis & P. Schwab 1979
Rt. Hon. Sir R. Wild 1968
European Convention on Human Rights 4.11.50
United Nations Department of Public Information 1984
A. Pollis & P. Schwab 1979
R. G. Mulgan 1968
A. Pollis & P. Schwab 1979
Article 3; Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948
Article 5; Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948