Dec. 10, 1948: A day that changed the world

Sunday, December 10, 2006

With images of Nazi death camps freshly seared on the world’s conscience, the
United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights on Dec. 10, 1948.

The vote was 48-0, with 8 abstentions (six Soviet Bloc nations, South Africa
and Saudi Arabia).

For the first time in history, the nations of the world recognized that “all
human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” – and called for the
“advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and
belief and freedom from fear and want.”

On the day of its adoption, Eleanor Roosevelt (who chaired the drafting
committee) told the assembled delegates that the Universal Declaration “may well
become the international Magna Carta” of all people everywhere.

Of course, the ink was not dry on the Universal Declaration before many
nations that voted to uphold human rights began to violate them. And almost 60
years later, many nations – including the United States – who said “never again”
in 1948 are collectively wringing their hands while genocide continues unabated
in the Darfur region of Sudan (where it is estimated that more than 200,000 have
died and 2 million have been driven from their homes since 2003).

This tragic gap between ideal and practice makes a mockery of the lofty
rhetoric from the U.S. and other governments proclaiming Dec. 10 “Human Rights
Day.” Perhaps that’s why so little effort is spared to commemorate the

Nevertheless, I’m convinced that Mrs. Roosevelt got it right. With one voice,
the world set a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all
nations.” On Dec. 10, 1948, “atrocities” became “violations,” a change that
launched the modern struggle for universal human rights.

If not everyone in the 1948 General Assembly fully appreciated the
revolutionary implications of their vote, the Soviet delegates clearly
understood how a universal definition of human rights might be invoked to
threaten state power. Right up to the final vote, the Soviets attempted to amend
the document to give governments the right to restrict freedom of opinion and
expression without violating the Universal Declaration. Fortunately, they

Echoing the American First Amendment, the final document proclaims that
“everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and
“everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” The state does
not grant these rights – and the state may not take them away. These rights are

While it’s undeniable that the world has failed to live up to the Universal
Declaration, that doesn’t mean that the standard is not worth having. Consider
this: Today, the constitutions of more than 40 countries and the European Union
explicitly invoke the Universal Declaration when defining the basic rights
guaranteed to their citizens.

The declaration has also served as the basis for U.N. covenants on civil and
economic rights, such as the treaties protecting the rights of the child and
prohibiting discrimination against women (most of which the U.S. has yet to

Moreover, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and many other groups,
founded on the principles affirmed in the declaration, have successfully used
world opinion and moral persuasion to advance the cause of human rights.

The passage of the Universal Declaration in 1948 was a momentous decision,
arguably the most important decision for human rights since the passage of the
American Bill of Rights in 1791.

“A bill of rights,” wrote Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, “is what the
people are entitled to against every government on earth … and what no just
government should refuse.”

It took a Holocaust for the world to agree to an international bill of
rights. What will it take for the world to live up to it?

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101
Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: