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World: UN Marks 50th Anniversary Of Universal Declaration Of Human Rights

  • Kevin Foley

Washington, 3 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations caps a year-long commemoration one week from today when it convenes a special General Assembly session to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

There will also be a special celebration of the event in Geneva, the headquarters of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The UN set the theme of the 50th anniversary as "All Human Rights for All." The UN says this highlights the "universality, the indivisibility and the interrelationship of all human rights."

The declaration was adopted on Dec. 10, 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris by the 58 states which were members of the General Assembly at the time. Forty-eight members voted for adoption, eight members abstained and two members were absent.

The UN proclaimed the declaration as a "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations," towards which individuals and societies should "strive by progressive measures -- national and international -- to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance."

The document has 30 articles enumerating the rights that each human being is entitled to. The rights include the specific, such as Article 4 which states that: "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms," and Article 5, which states that: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

But the list of rights also includes abstract sentiments such as those expressed in Article 28: "Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized."

The human rights declaration is not a legally binding document. However, the UN says the declaration "has inspired more than 60 human rights instruments which together constitute an international standard of human rights."

Some of the most significant human rights treaties, which are binding on all of the UN's 185 member states, include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN says that those two covenants, together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, constitute "the International Bill of Rights."

According to the UN, the universal declaration has been translated into more than 200 languages, and, "its principles have been enshrined in and continue to inspire national legislation and the constitutions of many newly independent states."

Work on the universal declaration began in 1946 when the UN, still in its post-war infancy, established the Commission on Human Rights. The first chairman of the commission was Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of America's wartime president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Mrs. Roosevelt believed that human rights, although universal, began "in small places, close to home -- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world." These places, she said, were neighborhoods and schools, factories and farms and offices, places, she said, where "every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination."

Said Mrs. Roosevelt: "Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."

The original UN Human Rights Commission had 18 members. Representatives from eight nations formed a committee to draft the human rights declaration. The committee consisted of eight persons, one each from Australia, Chile, China, France, Lebanon, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States.

According to UN historians, the drafting committee maintained a common ground for discussions and a common goal: respect for fundamental rights and freedoms. The UN says that, "despite their conflicting views on certain questions, they agreed to include in the document the principles of non-discrimination, civil and political rights and social and economic rights." The committee also agreed that the declaration had to be universal.

The declaration states that the inherent dignity of all men, women and children, "is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. The rights of each human being, says the UN, are "not gifts to be withdrawn, withheld or granted at someone's whim or will."

(One of a series of NCA stories on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)