The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the General Assembly of the UN (Resolution 217 A [III]) on 10 December 1948. The Declaration, prepared by the UN Commission on Human Rights—and inspired by people such as René Cassin, of France; Charles Malik, of Lebanon; and Eleanor Roosevelt, of the United States—was adopted by forty-eight votes in favor, eight abstentions, and no votes against.

The UDHR contains thirty articles that enumerate the civil and political rights of individuals, as well as their economic and social rights. It is the first international text to address the issue of human rights. General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding treaties, in the way that international conventions are, and the UDHR was adopted as a Declaration because it is meant to be more an ideal that all States should strive to achieve than a list of precise and constraining engagements. The UDHR was first a crucial point of reference in the development of national and international tools concerning human rights, which entail mandatory obligations.

Today, however, it is binding on all States, because it has become part of international customary law. ▸ Customary international lawInternational conventionsInternational law

The Declaration served as the basis for the drafting of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (and its first Optional Protocol) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. These two Covenants were adopted in 1966 and are binding on States Parties. The UDHR and the two Covenants make up what is known today as the international bill of rights. The UDHR is also quoted in several regional and international conventions, such as the founding documents for the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OCSE), and a dozen national constitutions, and it is often invoked by UN organs.

It also serves as one of the bases for identifying a likely “consistent pattern of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms” that may trigger a confidential procedure before the former UN Commission on Human Rights (1503 Procedure; ECOSOC Resolution 1503 [XLVIII], 1970). The 1503 Procedure was set up to hear communications and complaints from individuals or groups who claim to be victims of human rights violations and from any person or group of people who have direct, reliable knowledge of violations (e.g., NGOs), in accordance with recognized principles of human rights. If the complaints are retained, an envoy may be sent to the country in question, a confidential investigation may be launched, or the issue may be adopted for public discussion (1235 Procedure; ECOSOC Resolution 1235 [XLII], 1967). It is important not to confuse these international human rights instruments with the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (of 1789). ▸ International conventionsInternational lawUnited Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights/Human Rights Council

The Rights Established by the UDHR

  • Article 1: Equality of human beings in dignity and in rights
  • Article 2: Non-discrimination between human beings, on any basis such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin—including the political, legal, or international status of the territory of which they are a national—property, birth, or other status
  • Article 3: Right to life, liberty, and security of person
  • Article 4: Prohibition on slavery
  • Article 5: Prohibition on torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment
  • Article 6: Right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law (juridical personality)
  • Article 7: Equal protection before the law
  • Article 8: Right to an effective judicial remedy before a court against violations of fundamental rights
  • Article 9: Prohibition on arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile
  • Article 10: Right to legal recourse before an independent and competent court
  • Article 11: Judicial and due process guarantees for individuals
  • Article 12: Respect for privacy, family, and home
  • Article 13: Freedom of movement and residence within each country, and right to leave and return to one’s country
  • Article 14: Right to flee from persecution and to seek asylum
  • Article 15: Right to a nationality
  • Article 16: Right to marriage and protection of marriage
  • Article 17: Right to property
  • Article 18: Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion
  • Article 19: Freedom of expression and opinion, including the right to receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers
  • Article 20: Right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association
  • Article 21: Right to take part in the government of one’s country, directly or through freely chosen representatives, based on universal and equal suffrage
  • Article 22: Right to social security
  • Article 23: Right to work and to free choice of employment, with equal pay for equal work
  • Article 24: Right to rest and leisure
  • Article 25: Right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being and to special care and assistance for the most vulnerable
  • Article 26: Right to education
  • Article 27: Right to participate freely in the cultural life of the community and to the protection of scientific, literary, or artistic production
  • Article 28: Right to a social and international order in which human rights and freedoms can be fully realized
  • Article 29: Duties of individuals toward the community: any limitations determined by law must be 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. Rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
  • Article 30: Nothing in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights may be interpreted as allowing any activity aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth therein.

DiscriminationHuman rightsIndividual recourseJudicial guaranteesNationalityPublic orderRefugeesSafety

For Additional Information: Danieli, Yael. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Fifty Years and Beyond . Amityville, NY: Baywood, 1999.

Morsink, Johannes. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

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