The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

This world-famous declaration is celebrated each year on International Human Rights Day.

Published: February 2, 2018

A person woman-presenting holds a large piece of paper covered with text and a large title reading "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Partially obscured.

Photo: FDR Presidential Library and Museum

Story text

On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). After the horrors of the Second World War, countries around the world came together to express their belief in human rights.

The UDHR sets out how countries can contribute to a better world by supporting the dignity and worth of all human beings. The declaration is built upon agreement that:

  • Recognizing the dignity and rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world
  • Our highest aspiration as humans is a world where we enjoy freedom of speech and belief, and freedom from fear and want

Drafting a human rights future

First meeting of the Drafting Committee on the International Bill of Human Rights on June 9, 1947 at Lake Success, New York.

Black and white archival photo of a group of people sitting around a conference table.

Photo: UN Photo Library, 52812

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.

Eleanor Roosevelt, First chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights

Large white text on a black wall reading "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

Explore a piece of human rights history

The UDHR is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Representatives of many UN member states worked on several drafts to reach consensus on a declaration of human rights that would apply to everyone, everywhere. The Preamble to the UDHR outlines the motivation behind the Declaration, which was to respond to the “barbarous acts” of the Second World War by articulating a universally agreed upon set of rights to which all people should be entitled.

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples 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.

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co‐operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

NOW, THEREFORE: THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY PROCLAIMS THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Source: Universal Declaration of Human Rights

A Good Beginning

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is for everyone. The idea that rights belong to all of us, simply because we are human – no matter who we are or where or how we live – is what the UDHR proclaims. People continue to work tirelessly to make this great hope a reality.

Human rights matter at home, at school, at work and at play. Everyone is entitled to freedom from discrimination, freedom of belief, the right to an education, as well as food, clothes and a place to live.

When nations signed the UDHR, they promised to protect people’s rights. But legal force was needed to ensure they kept this pledge. In 1966, the United Nations turned the ideals of the Declaration into law by creating the International Bill of Human Rights.

A man wearing a suit signs a document.

Salvador P. Lopez, UN ambassador from the Philippines, signing the Covenants, 1966.

Photo: UN Photo Library, 112844

The Bill consists of the original Declaration and two laws, called covenants. The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights protects quality of life. The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights shields people from the power of the state. Each covenant also includes additional components called protocols that address specific human rights issues. These protocols are optional for countries to sign.

Today, there are many international laws which compel nations to honour their commitment to human rights. However, 70 years after the proclamation of the UDHR, the declaration remains the world’s most widely recognized document establishing the rights to which all human beings are entitled.

Understanding for All

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is for everyone. The 30 articles of the UDHR proclaim a common standard of human rights for all people. To ensure that the meaning of the Declaration is accessible to all, the UDHR has been written in plain language and can be found on the Speak Truth to Power Canada website. Speak Truth to Power Canada, Defenders for Human Rights is a collaborative partnership project with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, led by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the Assembly of First Nations, and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

Two young girls lean on a glowing stone wall and look upward. Partially obscured.

Ask yourself:

  • How can I help make the vision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a reality?

  • What rights do I exercise on a daily basis?

  • Are we moving in the right direction in Canada?

Dive deeper

A Universal commitment

Discover the people of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

" "

Suggested citation

Suggested citation : . “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Published February 2, 2018.