Welcome to Day 5, our final session of the week. Today we’ll focus on the legacies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that was not given the rule of law over the laws of individual sovereign states but nonetheless holds a great deal of influence over human rights legislation and promotion since its inception.
With much fanfare, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948.
Soon after, questions arose about its significance. Critics viewed the document as mere words without mechanisms for enforcement. They believed that sovereign nations would object to any universal document that would interfere with how they dealt with their own citizens.
Eleanor Roosevelt strongly upheld the importance of the Declaration. She argued that the moral framework developed in the Declaration set a high standard for nations to aspire to achieve. She also stressed that citizens around the world needed to be educated about the Declaration and that such education would encourage citizens to impact the treatment of individuals and groups within their states. Even before the adoption of the Declaration, Eleanor wrote “The Promise of Human Rights,” an essay arguing that the Declaration was important not because nation-states would immediately live up to its provisions but because states “ought to support the standards toward which the nations must henceforth aim.”
Several years after its adoption, Eleanor spoke at the United Nations, stressing that human rights should begin
"in small places close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world."
She further pointed out that "without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world." In other words, without the rule of law, the burden of enforcement falls on the shoulders of concerned individuals, not governments.
John Humphrey echoed Eleanor’s optimism. He believed that the Declaration was a moral framework that nations could seek to achieve through social and cultural means. He hoped that the international community would judge states on how they morally deal with their citizens. “The final judgment of history,” Humphrey said, “will be determined by the impact which the Declaration had and will have on the actual conduct of states and individual men and women everywhere.” However, following the signing of the Declaration, international treaties of enforcement had been established.
More recently, scholar and political theorist Johannes Morsink has found that “fifty international human rights instruments” have been inspired by the Declaration. Many constitutions of newly created states integrated human rights articles in their constitutions. There are many organizations monitoring human rights throughout the world.
Today’s readings will focus on the initial response to the adoption of the Declaration, which was largely critical, and the lingering question of the international community’s influence over sovereign states’ treatment of individual citizens.
Our discussion will center on the prospect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights becoming international law. At the end of this session, we ask that you complete a brief evaluation of the workshop.