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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 21st Century

Gordon Brown


Gordon Brown

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  • 1 An annotated version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is set out in Appendix A.

1When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948,1 the world was a very different place. Years of war had left the better part of two continents in disarray. A geopolitical reordering saw an Iron Curtain fall across a continent and a Cold War rise across the globe. And the world was waking up to the unconscionable horrors of the Holocaust. From the ruins of the Second World War came a call to enshrine fundamental human rights.

2Facilitating this moment of global introspection was a Philosophers’ Committee under the direction of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Committee enlisted leading thinkers – from Mahatma Gandhi to Aldous Huxley – to contribute their insights about a proposed Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The work of the Philosophers’ Committee was then passed to the UN Human Rights Commission, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, a tireless fighter whose supreme and lasting achievement was shaping a human rights consensus among the then 58 UN Member States.

3The framers of the Declaration envisaged three parts to the postwar human rights enterprise: a set of general principles, the codification of those principles into law, and a practical means of implementation. Because of the divisions and hostilities of the Cold War, countries could neither agree on the basis of human rights, nor on how specific rights should be upheld. So it was that Eleanor Roosevelt could only complete the first task. But owing in large part to her vision and leadership, the nations of the world did issue a historic declaration of human rights – a pantheon that for the first time encompassed civil, political, social, and economic rights. It is a Universal Declaration that has withstood the test of time.

4As the Declaration’s seventieth anniversary nears, we are reminded that its age has hastened an evolution, bequeathing to us something both inspirational and demanding. Today, the UDHR provides a “common conscience” for humanity. It is a beacon of hope. It is also a call for action, setting a high standard by which we judge the width of our generosity, the depth of our compassion, and the breadth of our humanity. It sends forth a message that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and that no evil can last forever.

5And everywhere we look we are reminded that the Declaration has stirred civil rights movements and hastened the march of progress. The words of protestors speaking out against colonialism and apartheid have been laced with the spirit, and at times the letter, of the Declaration. Those seeking to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexual orientation have confronted a wall – and a tall one at that – in the Declaration. Conditions of poverty, illiteracy, and squalor have all been challenged under the banner of the Declaration. And for those like Nelson Mandela, inspired by the sentiments of the Declaration, no intimidation, no show trial, no prison cell – not even the threat of execution – could ever extinguish their desire to stand for freedom.

6This is not to turn a blind eye to injustices that endure; for every step we take there are two that have yet to be made. Nonetheless, the Declaration is a proven force for good – both weapon and symbol for those seeking to give strength to the weak, courage to the fainthearted, power to the powerless, and voice to the silent. The very existence of a universal declaration rebukes long-standing, but intellectually feeble presumptions, that a sovereign state’s treatment of its citizens is the business of that state and that state alone. Time and again the arc of recent history has been altered by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

  • 2 The members of the Commission are set out in Appendix B.

7The Global Citizenship Commission (GCC), designed to reflect on that progress and the demands of the future, was born in the classroom. With the guidance of John Sexton, President of New York University (NYU) from 2002 to 2015, the Commission’s members met in a series of seminars to discuss the UDHR’s continuing relevance and contribution to the development of a global ethic.2 We understood we were asking questions about a new world – a sphere far more interconnected, integrated, and interdependent than when the Declaration was signed. More than ever before, the lives of each of us are affected by the lives of all of us. This is the lens through which realities were viewed and questions shaped. Principally, we focused on how the Declaration is understood for those born after 1948, and thus into a world where these rights are known. In parallel, discussions with UN Secretary‑General Ban Ki-moon stressed the centrality of individual citizens’ rights and the need for a strong educational foundation. This dual emphasis, reflected throughout our report, accords with Eleanor Roosevelt’s statement that ideals “carry no weight unless the people know them, unless the people understand them, unless the people demand that they be lived.”

  • 3 The members of the Philosophers’ Committee are set out in Appendix C.

8Drawing on the Declaration’s own history, the Commission borrowed a page from the UDHR and convened a Philosophers’ Committee.3 Its work informed the deliberations of a global working group of scholars, led by the highly-respected Professor Jeremy Waldron. The Philosophers’ Committee’s analysis provided the academic foundation for a meaningful examination of the UDHR, and I join the Commission in thanking these scholars for their pioneering work.

9In light of the Philosophers’ Committee’s analysis, the Commission’s report first considers how our understanding of human rights has evolved. We then move on to identify specific rights requiring more emphasis than they received in the Declaration, if they were acknowledged at all. As one might expect, the rights of women, children, the disabled, and the LGBT community require further attention and a deepened global commitment. What is more, in a world where 60 million individuals are displaced from their homes and 20 million are refugees, the rights of migrants and stateless persons have become once again – as was true in the upheavals following the Second World War – a matter of vital importance. The report also examines what justification there can ever be for derogations of rights, how we combine civil and political rights with social and economic rights, and who must ultimately take responsibility for upholding the UDHR as a global ethic – as a covenant. These questions were flanked by a recognition of reality – the hard data proving there is much work to be done. Discussions with the Secretary-General, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, and my own experiences as UN Special Envoy for Global Education convinced me that a balanced Commission report should address failures of implementation. This is, in a real sense, the unfinished work of Eleanor Roosevelt’s commission. Even after almost seventy years, the question of how we protect enshrined rights has never been answered comprehensively.

10The Commission’s report is a reminder of what is at stake. Accordingly, we advance recommendations that highlight the urgent need to strengthen human rights in the twenty-first century. Some recommendations call for upholding specific rights in new ways, such as our proposal urging the international community to adopt a more far-reaching convention on refugees and migrants and our call for an International Children’s Court. Other recommendations call attention to deeper, structural issues, including our conclusion that countries may not hide behind the thin veil of national sovereignty as a pretext for insulating themselves from external human rights pressures. We advocate enhancing the UN’s system for upholding and advancing human rights with a proposal that Security Council members voluntarily suspend veto rights in situations involving mass atrocities.

11I am honored to have chaired the Global Citizenship Commission. I am profoundly grateful to each Commissioner for making this report, and its proposals, possible. Over two years, the Commission met in Edinburgh, Bonn, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and New York – all while holding global consultations drawing on counsel and expertise from China, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa. During the life of the Commission, we endeavored – through public dialogues and external consultation – to include a broad range of perspectives. All of this has been made possible by the generous support of New York University, the Carnegie UK Trust, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Bonn, and the NYU Global Institute for Advanced Study (GIAS), chaired by Paul Boghossian who has been an ever-present influence for good. We are grateful to the Director of Research and Secretary to the Commission, Andrew Hilland, and our Staff Directors Melissa Friesen and Michael Patullo, all of whom carried the burden of servicing our work for two years. And we owe a special debt of gratitude to Executive Director Diane Yu who managed this process, and Robert Shrum for his guidance in drafting the Commission’s report. I want to thank all those who helped make this report possible, including the individuals and institutions mentioned in the Acknowledgments.

12Voices at the margins must come alive. For this reason, I believe this report can make a valuable contribution to contemporary debates. We write of course from a comfortable vantage point – from a promontory. Wherever we direct our gaze, we are bound to find broken refugees, oppressed children, and enslaved women. We see them and, in turn, hope they see us and demand action. I do not expect our report to be, like the Declaration itself, timeless. But I do hope it will be timely, holding high once again the challenge posed to each successive generation – to do better and achieve more. The Commission is insistent that rights imply responsibilities. In securing certain rights, and seeking to enshrine others, we are constantly reminded of both how far the world has come and how much farther we must go. For we must never forget that the global condition of human rights – civil, political, social, and economic – is the yardstick with which we measure humanity’s progress.


1 An annotated version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is set out in Appendix A.

2 The members of the Commission are set out in Appendix B.

3 The members of the Philosophers’ Committee are set out in Appendix C.


Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom UN Special Envoy for Global Education

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