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Human Rights Day

Eleanor Roosevelt holds the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Photo © United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt holds the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Photo © United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Human Rights Day marks the U.N. General Assembly's adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948.

On Human Rights Day, which was established in 1950, the United States and the international community celebrate the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the declaration and honor those who work to promote and protect those rights.

The United States is a supporter of human rights worldwide, and throughout the year produces documents including the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which highlight successes and failures in the protection of the rights outlined in the declaration.

Today, human rights are recognized almost universally as fundamental freedoms that should be guaranteed to all people. Most nations now are committed to uphold and protect human rights, but this was not the case before the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the first international document to address in detail the notion that there exists a set of universal rights and fundamental freedoms that governments are obligated to secure for their citizens.

The declaration describes justice, equality and dignity as basic human rights of every man, woman and child. According to the declaration, “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and protecting the “inherent dignity of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” The declaration became the foundation of international human-rights law.

After World War II, the international community recognized the need for an established statement of human rights.  However, the drafters needed to create a document that would be approved by the then 58 member states, which had different political, ideological, religious and economic concerns.

The eight members of the declaration’s drafting committee – including U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt representing the United States, and delegates from Australia, Chile, China, France, Lebanon, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom – all agreed that the idea of universal rights and freedoms must be codified.  After two years of debate and drafting, the declaration included the right to life, liberty and security of person; the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, thought, conscience; and the right to be free from torture.

Despite some disagreement among member states as to the scope of the document, the declaration also held that these rights were inherent to all of humanity, regardless of race, sex or religion.

“We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind,” said Eleanor Roosevelt as the declaration was presented to the U.N. General Assembly for a vote. “This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere.”

The General Assembly voted to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948.

The declaration, although not legally binding, is now regarded as a customary law, that is, one whose principles are supported by the international community as practices that are required by law.

The declaration has inspired more than 60 human-rights documents, including legally binding treaties such as the 1976 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the civil and political rights of individuals and nations, including the right to life and liberty and the right to self-determination. More than 150 states, including the United States, are parties to the covenant.

In addition, the principles outlined in the declaration have been enshrined in the constitutions of up to 90 countries, and the declaration has been translated into 300 languages.

The United States, on Human Rights Day and throughout the year, supports human rights in each region of the world.

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