Universal Declaration of Human Rights: a 70-year-old aspiration

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 took inspiration from the 13th-century Magna Carta, the US Declaration of Independence of 1776, and France’s 1789 Rights of Man.

Unlike the others, however, the 1948 document is the first to say that all human beings are free and equal in “dignity” as well as rights.

Here is a summary of the rights charters that informed the declaration adopted by the United Nations 70 years ago, in the aftermath of World War II.

– 1215: Magna Carta –

England’s “Magna Carta”, which means “Great Charter”, is seen as a foundation stone for modern constitutions and the first text to deal with the rights of man.

Putting an end to a rebellion against unpopular King John, it established for the first time that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law.

England’s Bill of Rights of 1689 went further in regulating relations between the monarchy and people, imposing limits on the king’s powers and boosting the rights of parliament, including to free elections and speech.

– 1776: US Declaration of Independence –

Adopted as 13 American colonies at war with Britain declared themselves independent, the document stated that all men were born equal and had certain inalienable rights, including to life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

Ten amendments to the US federal Constitution in 1789 resulted in a US Bill of Rights that guaranteed freedom of expression and religion to all Americans, as well as the right to a fair trial and “to keep and bear arms”.

– 1789: Rights of Man –

Also in 1789, France’s National Assembly set out the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” which was built around the trinity of liberty, equality and fraternity.

It would become a foundational text for the French Revolution against the monarchy, which began the same year, and asserted the right to people’s rule.

Article 6, for example, states that the law “is the expression of the general will” and all “citizens have the right of contributing personally or through their representatives to its formation”. 

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