International Human Rights Law

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace …”

Preamble, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he or she lives in; the school or college he or she attends; the factory, farm or office where he or she works… Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, co-author, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Remarks at the United Nations, 27 March 1958

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is the basic international pronouncement of the indivisible, inalienable and inviolable rights of all human beings. It is a statement of values and principles to which the international community has promised to adhere, even though the UDHR is not by itself a human rights treaty. It is the foundational international vision for human rights and has become the best known and most often-cited human rights instrument in the world.

The UDHR contains 30 articles, or sections, that set out people’s universal rights. Some of the rights are based on our physical needs, such as the right to life, right to shelter and right to food. Other rights are to protect us, such as the right to be free from torture, inhumane treatment or punishment. While other rights are to ensure we are able to develop to our full potential, such as the right to education, right to work and right to participate fully in cultural life.

The rights included in the UDHR are based on values of dignity, justice, respect and equality. The Declaration affirms entitlement to human rights regardless of who you are, where you come from, what language you speak, or what your religious beliefs are.

Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights are supposed to be:

  • Universal – they apply to everyone in the world
  • Equal – all people are entitled to have the same rights, privileges and status under the law
  • Interdependent and indivisible – the rights are dependent on one another and cannot be separated
  • Inalienable and inviolable – you cannot give up your rights, even if you want to, and no one should be able to violate or disregard your rights

The UDHR was proclaimed in a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948, out of a strong collective desire to for peace in the aftermath of the Second World War. A Canadian lawyer, John Peters Humphrey, was the first director of the UN Human Rights Committee, initially chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, and they both made significant contributions to the early drafting of the Declaration. After years of negotiation and many versions, drafters included Humphrey from Canada, Roosevelt from the United States, as well as drafters from France, China, Lebanon, Chile, Australia, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights represents a vision of the world as the international community would like it to become and remains relevant to international law more than sixty years after its creation.

International Bill of Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a statement of internationally accepted values and principles, but by itself it is not a legally binding document. In order to get passage of the UDHR as quickly as possible, the original package of rights was split up, but it took almost 30 years before the two legally binding covenants drafted to go along with the Declaration, were activated in 1976. These two treaties are the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These treaties recognize and define in more detail many of the rights set out in the UDHR. If a government decides to sign and ratify the covenants this means that they have agreed to uphold the rights and freedoms set out in the covenants in their own country. Altogether the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights make up the International Bill of Rights.