Human Rights Day

Human Rights Day
Diplomats from every continent negotiated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Pierre Albouy/ILO)

Human Rights Day is observed every year on December 10. It commemorates the day on which, in 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” So begins the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Whether one reads it in in Abkhaz, Zulu or any language in between, the declaration represents the common heritage of all humanity.

How do you define human rights?

At the United Nations’ very first session, in 1945, a Panamanian, Ricardo Alfaro, first proposed a bill of international human rights. The new U.N. Commission on Human Rights was tasked with drafting one. It wasn’t a small task. To succeed, a document needed both to capture the essence of what we mean by “human rights” and to secure the approval of the diverse international community. Former U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, chairwoman of the commission, was unfazed by these challenges. “We make our own history,” she said. “It is more intelligent to hope than not to hope, to try rather than not to try.”

An all-star team of international diplomats set to work. Constitutions of all U.N. members and other documents were discussed, debated and scrutinized. Committee member Charles H. Malik of Lebanon was a strong proponent of natural rights. China’s Zhang Pengjun contributed a Confucian outlook. Lawyers John Humphrey from Canada and René Cassin of France drafted the initial text.

Delegates from all parts of the world community refined the document. Latin American delegates argued for inclusion of socioeconomic rights. Egypt’s delegation strengthened the statement on universality. And India, the Dominican Republic and Denmark fought to recognize the rights of women.

The discussions continued over 80-plus sessions. More than 160 amendments were debated. Finally, consensus was achieved.

“Thousands of minds and hands have helped in its formation,” said Malik as he introduced the declaration for a final vote at the U.N. General Assembly, a hush falling over the gathered diplomats, press and onlookers.

In the end, 48 nations voted to adopt the declaration and none voted against. In its 30 articles are the promise of fundamental economic, social, political, cultural and civic rights and the promise of a life free from want and fear.