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UN Rights Milestone Marks 60th Anniversary

French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman speaks before the UN Assembly ahead of its 1948 passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In the aftermath of World War II, the international community, still reeling from the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, agreed on the need to reaffirm the fundamental rights of human beings.

A number of countries, such as France and the United States, already had their own human rights charters.

But no document transcended borders and spelled out the rights of all individuals worldwide regardless of race, sex, or class.

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations overwhelmingly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at its General Assembly in Paris.

Speaking on the eve of the vote, Eleanor Roosevelt, first chairwoman of the commission responsible for drafting the declaration, told the assembly that it stood "at the threshold of a great event, both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind."

"This Universal Declaration of Human Rights may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere," she said.

Roosevelt proved to be correct.

Like the Magna Carta, a key 13th-century English legal charter, the Universal Declaration became one of the founding documents of postwar democracies, one that influenced countless national constitutions and international treaties.

Far-Flung Influence

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) consists of 30 articles outlining basic human rights such as the right to freedom of speech, religion, press, and assembly, the right to education, to work, and to live free from slavery and exploitation.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, it is the most-translated document in the world.

Steven Crawshaw, UN Advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, says the declaration has lost none of its relevance over the past 60 years.

"It's a list of basics that goes from classic oppression to the arbitrary denial of housing, education, and heath care," Crawshaw says. "Without the Universal Declaration, we would be worse off. I think the fact that the Universal Declaration exists remains enormously important for us today."

The UDHR gave huge impetus to the human rights movement -- like Human Rights Watch, the vast majority of rights groups operating today view the UDHR as their foundation stone.

The declaration also inspired the creation of international groupings designed to act as standard-bearers of peace, equality, and justice.

"The bedrock of the OSCE is the Helsinki Final Act from 1975, which was signed by 35 counties," says Martin Nesirky, spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Europe's main security and human rights body, "but the Helsinki Final Act is built on very solid foundations -- and those foundations include perhaps most importantly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

'A Foundation'

To mark the declaration's 60th anniversary, foreign ministers of OSCE participating states reaffirmed their countries' commitments to the values enshrined in the declaration during a meeting in Helsinki last week.

The UDHR is not a legally binding document. But it defines the meaning of the terms "fundamental freedoms" and "human rights" stipulated in the United Nations Charter, which is binding on all member states.

It has also served as the basis for two key, binding UN pacts: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
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Over the years, the 1948 declaration has therefore grown to be regarded as an inherent part of international law.

"Even though it's not a binding treaty, nonetheless it's considered to be reflecting customary international law, which is binding on all states," says Bill Bowring, an international human rights lawyer based in London. "All of the human rights treaties that have emerged since -- on eliminating discrimination against women, racial discrimination, or on the rights of children -- are based on the Universal Declaration. It's a foundation."

Bowring, who works closely with the European Court of Human Rights, says the declaration is a powerful tool for citizens seeking redress against their governments.

"I'm currently working with a colleague in Chechnya on a case against the Russian Federation," Bowring says. "Even if we don't refer explicitly to the Universal Declaration, it's always there."

The declaration has its critics, too.

Some say it fails to spell out what many perceive to be inherent rights, such as the right not to fight in wars.

Others charge that the declaration lacks teeth due to its nonbinding nature, enabling some UN members to violate its articles with impunity.

Predominantly Islamic countries Pakistan, Iran, or Saudi Arabia have also criticized the document for overlooking their cultural and religious traditions.

But Human Rights Watch's Crawshaw says these attacks only underscore the Universal Declaration's enduring moral authority.

"There are always people who will want to rewrite the basics and to chip away for a variety of different reasons," Crawshaw says. "I think it's actually extraordinary how much a relatively simple declaration has survived the test of time so well."