Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations

Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations

The Declaration of Human Rights and the Founding of the UN


World War II ended in September 1945 with the surrender of Japan. At the end of the war, 75 million people were dead, mostly civilians. As the world tried to grasp the scope of the Holocaust, as well as the massacres of Chinese in the Far East, the global community came together and declared that such atrocities much never occur again. They decided that the responsible parties must be held accountable and international organizations created to protect humanity. These assertions led to the creation of three very significant developments: the creation of the United Nations, the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and widespread international war crimes trials in Europe and the Pacific. All of these measures were undertaken to promote international justice for the victims of World War II, to protect future humanity, and to establish the precedent that individual people, regardless of their status, must be held responsible for their actions in wartime.


Learning Objectives

  • Analyze and assess the measures undertaken after World War II to protect humanity and plan for global peace.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Human rights: basic rights to safety, food, and certain freedoms issued to individual human beings at birth by virtue of being born human

Universal Declaration of Human Rights: a declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, the first global expression of what many believe are the rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled

United Nations: organization tasked with the purpose of designing international law, monitoring international crises, human rights, and international peace


Rise of the United Nations


The United Nations (UN) is an international organization whose stated aims are facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, and achievement of world peace. The UN was founded in 1945 after World War II to replace the League of Nations, stop wars between countries, and provide a platform for dialogue. It contains multiple subsidiary organizations to carry out its missions.


Creation of the UN


The earliest concrete plan for a new world organization was begun under the U.S. State Department in 1939. Franklin D. Roosevelt first coined the term “United Nations” as a term to describe the Allied countries. The term was first officially used on January 1, 1942, when 26 governments signed the Atlantic Charter, pledging to continue the war effort.

On April 25, 1945, the UN Conference on International Organization began in San Francisco, attended by 50 governments and a number of non-governmental organizations involved in drafting the United Nations Charter. The UN officially came into existence on October 24, 1945.


Map of UN Member Nations.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a declaration that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot, Paris. Importantly, the UDHR recognized that all human beings, regardless of age, ethnicity, class, religion, or any other category are individual human beings and entitled to certain individual rights. Although this concept seems elementary, it was first put into effect in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. Prior to its creation, there existed no document, no law, that universally recognized, or gave rights to human beings in terms of individuals. Moreover, the UDHR was the first document to speak of these individual rights in terms of human rights—rights given to an individual at birth by virtue of the fact they were born human.

The UDHR was framed by members of the Human Rights Commission, with Eleanor Roosevelt as Chair, who began to discuss an International Bill of Rights in 1947. The members of the Commission did not immediately agree on the form of such a bill of rights and whether or how it should be enforced.


Eleanor Roosevelt with the Spanish language version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.



The UDHR urges member nations to promote a number of human, civil, economic, and social rights, asserting these rights are part of the “foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” It recognizes, “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.”

The Declaration consists of 30 articles that, although not legally binding, have been elaborated in subsequent international treaties, economic transfers, regional human rights instruments, national constitutions, and other laws. The International Bill of Human Rights consists of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its two Optional Protocols. In 1966, the General Assembly adopted the two detailed Covenants, which complete the International Bill of Human Rights. In 1976, after the Covenants had been ratified by a sufficient number of individual nations, the Bill became international law.

Even though it is not legally binding, the Declaration has been adopted in or has influenced most national constitutions since 1948. It has also served as the foundation for a growing number of national laws, international laws, and treaties, as well as regional, subnational, and national institutions protecting and promoting human rights.

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