Why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Remains Significant After 75 Years

COMMENTARY: The document’s Dec. 10 anniversary is a reminder not to give up on its noble aim of recognizing the dignity of each and every human being.

Eleanor Roosevelt holding poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at Lake Success, New York in Nov., 1949.
Eleanor Roosevelt holding poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at Lake Success, New York in Nov., 1949. (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 (UDHR) celebrates its 75th Anniversary on Dec. 10. These days the United Nations is associated with so many disturbing causes, and seeming under the control of powerful governments and interest groups, that it seems strange to be celebrating one of its pronouncements. But, believe it or not, the UDHR is actually worth celebrating. 

Don’t take my word for it: Listen to one of the great Catholic public thinkers of our time, professor Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law emerita at Harvard University and a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. She is a prolific writer in the fields of human rights, comparative law, and political theory — and, more importantly, is a source of erudite common sense about these subjects rather than recycling the latest jargon. 

In a 1999 Notre Dame Law Review article, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the UDHR, Glendon described it as “the single most important reference point for cross-cultural discussion of human freedom and dignity in the world today.” She traced the origins of the project and shared her esteem for the “vision of the men and women who, after two world wars which gave them every reason to despair about the human condition, did what they could to help make the world a better and safer place.” 

The UDHR’s intellectual foundations began in 1946 when a committee of leading thinkers of the day, appointed by the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), sent a questionnaire on the theoretical bases for human rights to statesmen and scholars in every part of the world. Glendon noted that “to the Committee’s surprise, the lists of basic rights and values they received from their far-flung sources were essentially similar.”
With these lists in hand, the Commission on Human Rights, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, developed a draft that they hoped would be acceptable to the then 58 member nations of the United Nations. This draft underwent several revisions in response to suggestions and criticism.
All the while, Roosevelt worked behind the scenes, hosting informal meetings among the delegates. 

“I discovered that in such informal sessions we sometimes made more progress in reaching an understanding on some question before the United Nations than we had been able to achieve in the formal work of our committees,” noted Roosevelt in her autobiography. 

Glendon suggested that the UDHR should be seen as “a set of principles that are related to one another and to certain over-arching ideas” rather than a “list or a bill.” She added that “it possesses an integrity which has considerable strength when the document is read as it was meant to be read, namely as a whole.” 

The preamble of the UDHR, wrote Glendon, “begins by asserting the dependence of freedom, justice, and peace upon the universal recognition of human dignity and rights.” It notes that “the people of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom." 

As Glendon pointed out, the explicit inclusion of women and the commitment to “better standards of life” was a radical step, signaling “a new moment in the history of human rights.” For this Eleanor Roosevelt must take some of the credit. She remains a figure who is celebrated more in some circles than others, but consider this intriguing fact. An initial draft of the UDHR spoke only of conscience and belief. It was Roosevelt who convincingly argued that a text protecting religious freedom ought to use the word “religion.” Thanks to her work, Article 18 protects religious freedom and safeguards the right to manifest one’s beliefs in public as well as in private, and "in community with others." 

Human Dignity, explained Glendon, “enjoys pride of place in the Declaration.” In it, human beings are said to be “endowed with reason and conscience," and they are expected to "act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Interestingly, she observed, the UDHR’s “everyone” is an individual, uniquely valuable in himself who is, at the same time, “situated in families, communities, workplaces, associations, societies, cultures, nations, and an emerging international order.” Though its main body is devoted to basic freedoms, the declaration begins and ends with exhortations to solidarity. 

In other words, its “everyone” is not an atomized individual endowed with rights. And, just as the rights of the individual and society are connected, so too are their enforcement. “Everyone has duties to the community,” explains Article 29. As Glendon emphasized, the view of the framers of the UDHR was that “it had to be made clear that the responsibility for protecting human rights belonged not only to the nation states, but to persons and groups below and above the national level.” 

The 75th anniversary of the UDHR is a reminder not to give up on its noble aim of recognizing the dignity of each and every human being. But I think it’s more than that. It’s also a perfect opportunity to celebrate one of the Declaration’s greatest living champions — professor Glendon. And that’s exactly what is happening. 

The University of Dallas — now acclaimed as one of the finest Catholic institutions of higher education in the nation — is establishing the Mary Ann Glendon Chair and Program in Catholicism, Human Rights, and Constitutional Government. New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former student of Glendon’s, are serving as co-chairs of the initiative. 

The university’s reason for doing so is inspiring and timely: 

“As the extremes of left and right intensify their assault on human dignity and freedom, a more robust, coherent, and systematic intellectual response is the need of the hour. To develop such a response, there is no better and more relevant resource than the rich and balanced thought of Mary Ann Glendon.” 

I couldn’t agree more.

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