Washington – Human Rights Day
marks the U.N. General Assembly's adoption of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt represented the
United States when the U.N. General Assembly
voted to adopt the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights on December 10, 1948. (© AP/WWP)
On Human Rights Day, which was established
in 1950, the United States and the international community
celebrate the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the declaration
and honor those who work to promote and protect those rights.
The United States is a supporter of human
rights worldwide, and throughout the year produces documents
including the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,
which highlight successes and failures in the protection
of the rights outlined in the declaration.
Today, human rights are recognized almost
universally as fundamental freedoms that should be guaranteed
to all people. Most nations now are committed to uphold
and protect human rights, but this was not the case before
the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
was the first international document to address in detail
the notion that there exists a set of universal rights and
fundamental freedoms that governments are obligated to secure
for their citizens.
The declaration describes justice, equality
and dignity as basic human rights of every man, woman and
child. According to the declaration, “all human beings
are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and
protecting the “inherent dignity of all members of
the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and
peace in the world.” The declaration became the foundation
of international human-rights law.
After World War II, the international community
recognized the need for an established statement of human
rights. However, the drafters needed to create a document
that would be approved by the then 58 member states, which
had different political, ideological, religious and economic
The eight members of the declaration’s
drafting committee – including U.S. first lady Eleanor
Roosevelt representing the United States, and delegates
from Australia, Chile, China, France, Lebanon, the Soviet
Union and the United Kingdom – all agreed that the
idea of universal rights and freedoms must be codified.
After two years of debate and drafting, the declaration
included the right to life, liberty and security of person;
the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, thought, conscience;
and the right to be free from torture.
Despite some disagreement among member states
as to the scope of the document, the declaration also held
that these rights were inherent to all of humanity, regardless
of race, sex or religion.
“We stand today at the threshold of
a great event both in the life of the United Nations and
in the life of mankind,” said Eleanor Roosevelt as
the declaration was presented to the U.N. General Assembly
for a vote. “This declaration may well become the
international Magna Carta for all men everywhere.”
The General Assembly voted to adopt the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948.
The declaration, although not legally binding,
is now regarded as a customary law, that is, one whose principles
are supported by the international community as practices
that are required by law.
The declaration has inspired more than 60
human-rights documents, including legally binding treaties
such as the 1976 International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights, which protects the civil and political rights of
individuals and nations, including the right to life and
liberty and the right to self-determination. More than 150
states, including the United States, are parties to the
In addition, the principles outlined in
the declaration have been enshrined in the constitutions
of up to 90 countries, and the declaration has been translated
into 300 languages.
The United States, on Human Rights Day and
throughout the year, supports human rights in each region
of the world. In the Sudan, the U.S. State Department engaged
Sudanese government and militia leaders to call for perpetrators
of violence against women and children to be held to account.
In Burma, the United States continues to press the Burmese
junta to allow workers’ rights and unions and to discontinue
its use of forced labor.
At the United Nations, the United States
supports the General Assembly’s adoption of resolutions
calling on Iran, North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
and the Democratic Republic of Congo to protect human rights
within their territories. The United States also is working
with the United Nations to reform the Human Rights Council,
so that group does not include member states with a record
of abusing human rights.
“Freedom, democracy and human rights
are not American principles or Western values,” said
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005. “These
ideals are shared by all people. They are the non-negotiable
demands of human dignity.”
For more information on U.S. policy, see
Washington File Staff Writer