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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Turns 75

10.12.2023
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According to David J. Scheffer

The seventy-fifth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a moment of reflection on the past and aspirations for the future. As an international instrument of governance, only the UN Charter can be considered to have greater influence on the course of world events than the UDHR. Although its declaratory nature is not a binding treaty between states, the UDHR has inspired the modern human rights movement and stands as a beacon of human decency, guiding not only the behavior of governments but also the lives of peoples and individuals who seek the protection of international Human Rights law.

The UDHR stimulated truly international negotiations that led to binding treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These three documents are often regarded as the "International Bill of Rights", which together have had a greater influence on world thinking than any enforceable laws. Indeed, given the ideological differences that arose at the beginning of the Cold War when the UDHR was debated and approved by the UN General Assembly, its non-binding nature served the era well. It was more valuable to essentially establish, with the collective approval of states, universal moral standards than to make futile attempts to codify standards in the fractured world of competing capitalism and socialism. An immediate move to codification would have encountered obstacles that, although raised during the UDHR negotiations, were overcome by relying on the sound and moral arguments of the final declaration.

However, there are strong arguments that the UDHR has entered the realm of customary international law and therefore cannot be ignored by governments. U.S. federal courts have frequently invoked the UDHR to strengthen human rights protections underpinned by binding U.S. treaties and law. The UDHR may not give an American the ability to bring a human rights claim in court, but it is a powerful defense when a victim is brought before a judge.

The political mandate of the UDHR is set out in Article 28: “Everyone has the right to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” This remains a future goal that all countries must strive to achieve.

 

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