Why I believe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is our best tool for solving the world’s current challenges

This perspective was contributed by Nancy Person, New Tactics in Human Rights Training Manager.

On the 10th of December, 2023, we will mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  The UDHR is a transformational document that emerged from the devastation of World War II.  The international community united in response to the atrocities committed by creating the United Nations. The United Nations Charter and the 30 articles of the UDHR emerged to establish the fundamental human rights to be universally protected. The UDHR was drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world. Women made key contributions that shaped this important document. The UDHR gives us common principles, language and understanding of our human aspirations to solve today’s problems. 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

As a woman and human rights activist, the UDHR has been a powerful guiding light. I have spent more than 40 years of my life advocating for human rights. I have spent the last 24 of those years working in the Center for Victims of Torture, and 20 of those years with the New Tactics in Human Rights program. I have had the great advantage of standing upon the shoulders of those who have gone before. Yet, it is my on-going responsibility to continue the struggle to protect and advance human rights. This responsibility has been glaring in light of hard-won victories I’ve enjoyed in my lifetime that are now under threat. Each generation is tasked to not only protect but ensure these rights are enjoyed by everyone, everywhere. 

My advocacy wouldn't be possible if I didn't stand on the shoulders of previous generations of women. I am indebted to those who worked hard to ensure that the UDHR was truly universal and equal. On this 75th anniversary year, I want to pay respect to that generation of women. They were critical in establishing these universal and fundamental rights. Their lives, insights and dedication provide the foundation for advocates like me. Their work helps me and others to continue our struggle for these rights.

The role of women in ensuring universality and non-discrimination  

Eleanor Roosevelt is famous for her role as Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights. The contributions of other women from around the world often go unrecognized. Their contributions have been essential to the declaration, making it possible for the UDHR to stay relevant and address current challenges. I want to highlight some of these lesser-known women who made essential contributions  to the declaration:

UN photo, flickr: The Sub-commission on the Status of Women meets in 1946. From left to right: Hansa Mehta, India; Way Sung New, China; Fryderyka Kalinowski, Poland;Angela Jurdak, Lebanon; Minerva Bernardino, Dominican Republic; Marie Helene Lefaucheux, France; Mrs. Bodil Begtrup, Denmark

Hansa Mehta (India)

Mehta is credited with changing one word, “men” in Article 1 of the UDHR. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This revolutionary change is as relevant today as it was in 1948. 

Bertha Lutz (Brazil), Minerva Bernardino (Dominican Republic), Isabel de Vidal (Uruguay), and Amalia de Castillo Ledón (Mexico)

These Latin American women hold the credit for ensuring the equality of women’s rights were included in the 1945 United Nations Charter. These women fought a hard-won effort for inclusion of "the equality of men and women". This was the first international agreement recognizing the equal rights of men and women. Bernardino carried this effort forward to ensure that “the equality of men and women” was included in the preamble of the UDHR. 

Laksmi Menon (India), Bodil Begtrup (Denmark), and Marie-Hélène Lefaucheux (France)

Menon also argued strongly for "the equality of men and women" in the preamble of the UDHR. In addition, she was insistent on incorporating "non-discrimination based on sex" throughout the entire UDHR. She was a strong advocate for the "universality" of human rights. She opposed the concept of "colonial relativism". She worked to ensure that the declaration addressed efforts to deny human rights to people in countries subjected to colonial rule. Begtrup fought for the headlines to refer to “everyone” or “all people” instead of “all men”.  Lefaucheux was insistent that Article 2 include non-discrimination based on sex.  

Evdokia Uralova (Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic), Fryderyka Kalinowska (Poland) and Elizavieta Popova (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) 

Uralova, Kalinowska and Popova joined Laksmi Menon to advocate for persons in Non-Self-Governing Territories through the language of Article 2. Uralova also advocated for recognition of non-discrimination in the right to equal pay through Article 23: Everyone, without any discrimination [emphasis mine], has the right to equal pay for equal work. 

Begum Shaista Ikramullah (Pakistan) 

Ikramulla was an advocate who focused on freedom, equality and choice. She advocated for Article 16 on equal rights in marriage. Her focus was to combat child marriage and forced marriage. Today, Article 16 is relevant for each person’s freedom to choose: 

  • when to marry or not to marry, or the right to have your marriage recognized 
  • when to have a family or not to have a family which requires reproductive freedom over one’s own body, and to have your family recognized. 

In many countries, including my own, we are witnessing again the rise of destructive populism, nationalism and fascism. These forces feed on dividing people as “other”. The "other" is to be feared and hated. These forces seek to deprive women, Black, Indigenous people, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized communities of their universal and fundamental rights. There are growing attacks that target gender, in many different forms.

Credited to Dee Dwyer. Found on Ipas website https://www.ipas.org/about-us/ on 19 September 2023

Latin American women are continuing to be on the forefront of advancing non-discrimination and the right to reproductive freedom. Ipas, an organization working for reproductive justice for 50 years, shares this inspiring green wave advocacy timeline

As we recognize 75 years of the UDHR, we must be reminded that it was created because of the destruction wrought by populism, nationalism and fascism. Let’s honor the women who were key to ensuring the universality and non-discrimination of these fundamental human rights. Let’s honor those continuing that struggle, all too often at great cost to themselves. These rights must be universally protected for everyone. Our adherence to the universality of the declaration is critical today.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind [emphasis mine], such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. (Article 2)