The Universal Declaration of Human Rights1
and the Liberation of the Human Spirit2

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.   Article 1: Universal Declaration of Human Rights

After thorough scrutiny and 1,400 rounds of voting on practically every word and every clause, on December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Spelling out individual rights and freedoms for every human being, the unprecedented Declaration has been referred to as a "Magna Carta for all humanity" and the conscience of the world. "Everyone," states article two of the Declaration, "is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."

We know today, after the resolution of the conflicting opinions expressed at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 that the governments of the world accept the universality of human rights as envisioned by the 58 States who initially adopted the Declaration. Today it is a globally accepted fact-as it was in 1948-that these rights are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent. We know too that human rights are essential to the promotion of peace and security, economic prosperity and social equity. Full human dignity means not only freedom from torture, but also freedom from hunger. It means freedom to vote and the right to education. It means freedom of expression and the right to health. Thus, the theme of this 50th anniversary year, All Human Rights for All, reinforces the idea that human rights-civil, cultural, economic, political and social-should be taken in their totality and not disassociated from one another. Our aim, states Secretary-General Kofi Annan, is to create "a situation in which all individuals are enabled to maximize their potential, and to contribute to the evolution of society as a whole."

However, let there be no mistake. This 50th anniversary year is not a celebration. In a talk given at Oxford University in November of last year, Mary Robinson, the past President of Ireland and the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, frankly stated that she sees this anniversary as an occasion to recommit to the principles of the Declaration and not as a time to celebrate. Her assessment is that if you "count up the results of 50 years of human rights mechanisms, 30 years of multi-billion-dollar development programmes and endless high-level rhetoric...the global impact is quite underwhelming."

Today, as generations before us, we continue to experience violence, cruelty and greed. Millions throughout the world suffer some serious violation or deprivation of their basic rights and freedoms. These deprivations include everything from torture, rape and corrupt judicial systems to bonded labour, hunger and lack of access to health services, housing, sanitation and clean water. We still have widespread discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity, religious belief and sexual orientation. And, genocide is still with us. In the last decade alone, more than four million people have been killed in violent conflicts that have left one in 200 people refugees from their native countries. Additionally, there are 48 countries in which more than one fifth of the population live in absolute poverty.

The fact that we are aware, as we never have been before, of these blatant abuses of human rights all over the world represents in itself an achievement. Because of the conscientious and steadfast work and the sacrifice of those who have even given their lives to protect the human rights of others, there is today an increased awareness of human rights and a growing expectation of the realization of "all human rights for all."

Our challenge today is one of implementation. Recognizing this need, the fifty-first annual United Nations DPI/NGO Conference held in September of this year, chose as its theme, "The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: From Words to Deeds." At this conference Secretary-General Kofi Annan referred to the chasm that remains between the standards set by human rights laws and the situation on the ground. Throughout the three-day conference many echoed this thought and called on all people everywhere to become better aware of the relevance of this document to our daily lives because, it was pointed out, today's human rights violations are the root causes of tomorrow's conflicts.

The involvement of civil society and non-governmental organizations in fighting for and demanding recognition of basic rights has played a central role in the advancement and promotion of human rights around the world. Much yet remains to be done.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets forth a vision of the world as most of us would like it to be. Is there anything that could bring about personal and global transformation as surely and profoundly as the full implementation of this Declaration? In our loftiest of imaginings, can we envision what life on our planet might be like if everyone were treated "in the spirit of brotherhood?" Would not the resulting freedom from fear and strife truly bring about the liberation of the human spirit?



1 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is posted in the United Nations section of our website. Readers are encouraged to download it, publicize it, and become actively engaged in its local/global implementation.
2This article, by Ida Urso, first appeared in Volume 2, Issue 1 of The Bridging Tree, the newsletter of The Lifebridge Foundation.

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