Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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Passed nem. con.[1] by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)[2] is intended to codify the human rights obligations of the United Nations Charter. It is a framework for developing procedures to enforce human rights; it does not, in and of itself, create laws, courts, or enforcement mechanisms. [3]

Actual codification of procedures is the principal role of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”),[4] supplemented by other agreements. For example, the ICCPR clarifies that the right to liberty does not extend to court sentences, military duty, or compelled service in true emergencies.

Realistically, many of its principles are ideals and not fully followed in many states. [5]

General principles

Article 1 says "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." Article 2 states its jurisdiction: "without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status...Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Prohibited practices

Several Articles prohibit practices, such as slavery (Article 4), torture (Article 5), arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. (Article 9), "arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation." (Article

Positive rights

While the Conventions speak of a right to national or international movement, this has not been interpreted to mean that States cannot establish immigration or visitation restrictions, declare secure areas within their borders, or override the right of a property owner to control visitors.

It states a number of positive rights, freedom of movement and residence inside a State, as well as the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.

Article 16 defines the family as the fundamental unit of society, and establishes a right to marriage. Marriage, however, implies equal rights and full consent of the partners.

Private ownership of property, by individuals and groups, is guaranteed by Article 17.

Intellectual freedom

Article 18 guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the right to change religions and to practice one's religion. Based on the right of freedom of opinion, Article 19 state a right to transfer "information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Article 20 states a right of peaceful assembly and association, and denies compulsory membership in associations.

Citizenship and detention

While Article 14 establishes the right to asylum, in other coutries, from persecution, " This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. It is generally understood that it may need to be adjudicated if a genuine fear of prosecution exists.

Article 15 states a right to a nationality and the rights not to be arbitrarily deprived of nationality or the right to change nationality. "Arbitrarily" is key here, covering cases where an immigrant obtained citizenship through fraud. The Declaration does not speak to the rules by which specific countries may or may not grant citizenship.


The Convention establishes principles for arrest and trial, beginning with Article 6, "Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law." All are entitled to equal protection with no discrimination, according to Article 7.

Theory and practice may conflict in some of sections in this area. For example, Article 8 states a right to a "competent national tribunal", but what if the individual's citizenship is with a state that no longer exists, or a failed state whose courts are not functioning? How is the Article 10 right to a "fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal" balance with the sensitivity of personal information, or of commercial or government secrets?

Article 11 makes a presumption of innocence, with guilt to be proven in a tribunal. It also forbids ex post facto prosecution: "No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed." The International Military Tribunal (Nuremberg), as well as other war crimes tribunals created under different levels of formality in international law, prosecuted individuals, executing some, for things such as crimes against peace and crimes against humanity, which were not internationally recognized individual offenses at the time they were committed.

Social rights

The concluding Article 29 states "Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible," subject only to laws securing the rights and freedoms of others, and the "just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society." There is no explicit definition of morality or public order.

Article 21 states the right to participate in government, through secret ballot or other free process. "The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government."

Within the framework, rights cited are:

  • Social security (Article 22)
  • Right to work, free choice of employment, protection against unemployment, equal pay for equal work, and union membership (Article 23)
  • Rest and leisure, including reasonable working hours and periodic paid holidays. (Article 24)
  • Adequate standard of living, with explicit protection to children born in or out of wedlock (Article 25)
  • Education, with elementary education being compulsory and higher education being available on merit. Parents have the right to choose the education of their children. (Article 26)
  • Participation in cultural life, and protection of "moral and material" interest from intellectual creation. (Article 27)


In the United States, the Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight has oversight on related aspects for the House of Representatives.


  1. The 6 Communist members, plus South Africa and Saudi Arabia, abstained.
  2. Universal Declaration of Human Rights - English (English), Office of the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights
  3. David Weissbrodt and Amy Bergquist, "Extraordinary Rendition: A Human Rights Analysis", Harvard Human Rights Journal
  4. United States General Assembly ((entry into force) March 23, 1976), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, United Nations High Commissioner on Civil Rights
  5. i.e., a recognized nation