NEW YORK – The most important contribution of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 60 years ago, on December 10, 1948, was to assert a powerful idea: rights are universal. Rights do not depend on membership of a particular community or citizenship in a certain state. They do not derive from a social contract.
Rather, because rights are universal, they are attributes of all human beings. Indeed, they are part of what makes us human. Each of us may enjoy rights. Those who exercise power may do so only in limited ways. The limits are set by rights.
It is, of course, possible to trace the concept of universal rights at least as far back as seventeenth-century English thinking about natural law. The concept was partially embraced in the French Declaration of Rights of 1789 and, to a greater extent, in Thomas Jefferson’s language in the same era about “inalienable rights.” It also shaped the thinking of those in England who led the anti-slavery struggle of the second half of the eighteenth century, the first human rights movement.
Yet the Universal Declaration marked a giant step forward, as the world’s governments – with abstentions from the Soviet bloc states, Saudi Arabia, and apartheid South Africa, but with no votes in opposition – agreed that rights should take precedence over state power.