At the Heart of Human Rights

If Human Rights were a body, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be the heart. It is the muscle which keeps the blood of the movement pulsing, the muscle that circulates ideas, events, outcries, tragedies, aid, and triumphs of the sort that compose the current-day human rights situation. And if the UDHR is the heart, then the people of the world are those that articulate the very existence of that heart.

The drafting of the Declaration specifically included Eleanor Roosevelt, Field-Marshall Smuts, P.C. Chang, Rene Cassin, and Dr. Charles Malik. Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, chaired both an interim Human Rights body and then the official Commission on Human Rights at the United Nations. The Commission included 18 members including: P.C. Chang (China), Rene Cassin (France), and Dr. Charles Malik (Lebanon).

Meeting for the first time in January 1947, the Commission’s first task was to consult several human rights case issues and develop from them an address to the existence of universal human rights. So, when the time came to draft a document, why did the Commission choose to draft a declaration instead of a treaty (a treaty is far more binding)? There are three main reasons:

1. An international declaration is a statement of importance, placing an international issue in a spotlight that is, in a word, unavoidable.
2. An international declaration often also possesses high political and moral significance.
3. And it is more than a mere recommendation, but less than a treaty. In a sense, it gives nations the chance to warm to the ideas presented in the declaration without forcing them to take hasty–and sometimes uninformed–action.

In addition, the Commission believed it was essential for the declaration to be “relatively short, inspiring, and energizing” * while also including content on civil, political, economic, and social rights.

The Declaration bought time for the Commission to formulate actual covenants of international law (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, both of which are legally binding, were not ready for ratification until 1966, 18 years after the UDHR was endorsed). Yet though it is not legally binding, the UDHR has become a document of stature in the world today, setting standards for human rights that no county can ignore, even if they are reluctant to follow them.

Though the Declaration was created 60 years ago, today it has the Guinness World Record for Most Translated Document. Currently, the UDHR is available in 364 different languages, from Abkhaz to Zulu. In light of the world’s current human rights situation, this is both a great irony and a great hope.

The state of human rights in many of the world’s countries is still far from desirable despite the Document’s “language universality.” Progress has been made however. Though the UDHR is not considered a legally binding document, its articles are now considered part of international customary law. And the number of translations available means that the “common language of humanity,” in the words of former High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, can be spoken by all members of our international world. Though human rights abuses still occur, in an age when the world is shrinking thanks to communications technology, it is only a matter of time before the “language of humanity” will be on every tongue and in every heart.


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