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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 21st Century

Gordon Brown

7. Human Rights and a Global Ethic

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1The promulgation of the UDHR in 1948 made a difference in how people saw their place in the world and their relations with their state and with each other. This is in itself a valuable contribution, quite apart from the securing of the rights actually listed in the document. Over the decades since 1948, the UDHR has provided the rudiments of a “common conscience” for humanity. To borrow the words of Immanuel Kant, a violation of rights in any place is now felt all around the world. The international community is continuing to build on this, and the UDHR should be regarded as one of the pillars of a modern global ethic. Understandings of a “global ethic” will vary. But the idea seems to comprise at least the following two elements: first, a set of fundamental ethical ideas (such as human dignity) that are globally accepted as establishing a basis on which people deal with one another in the world; and second, a set of principles that arise out of the development of a new kind of interdependent global civil society, with common opportunities and common dangers. The Commission believes that a globalizing world needs an ethic of global citizenship, even if we cannot agree on a moral universalist basis for it.

2Of course, although human rights are important for a global ethic, they are only a part of it. Other pillars of a global ethic include:

  • Good governance and the rule of law, at both national and global levels.

  • Responsibility for planet and climate, and our obligations to future generations.

  • Basic humanitarian responsibility for one another, even when human rights are not directly involved.

  • The eradication of extreme poverty.

  • Outlawing aggressive war and upholding international security through the United Nations system as a basis for the resolution of global conflict.

  • The elimination of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

  • A broad commitment to strengthening institutions such as the United Nations and its agencies, which have paramount responsibility for the well-being of the international system.

  • The maintenance of the cosmopolitan frameworks that enable people to relate to one another scientifically, productively, economically, and culturally all around the world.

3These pillars are related to one another and they form an integrated system. Each of them has pivotal human rights dimensions but each of them also takes us beyond the field of human rights and opens up broader vistas of global obligation and participation. One way of thinking about human rights requirements is that they secure the foundation on which people can exercise and construct their citizenship responsibilities, whether in their own countries or in the world at large. Without the protections and liberty that human rights are supposed to secure, it would be difficult for people to lift their gaze beyond their immediate fears and deprivations.

4We think it is imperative, therefore, to reaffirm that human rights in general and the UDHR in particular contribute immensely to the emergence of a global ethic. A global ethic is not the same as international law. It is something like the shared moral impulse that underlies and sustains international law. Many things need to be comprised in a global ethic cannot be laid down in precise legal terms. At the same time, the reality of human rights institutions and the evolution of international human rights law – along with national and regional declarations of rights, and their accompanying courts – demonstrate that it is possible to build real-world institutions and practices upon these ethical foundations.

5The stated foundations of the UDHR – particularly the principles of dignity and human solidarity and the rejection of the barbarism that was experienced in the middle of the twentieth century – are the centerpiece of an emerging global ethic. The UDHR illustrates this not just by stating foundational values in its preamble but by showing how various human rights flow from these deeper commitments. In this regard, the very idea of rights is key. The distinctiveness of the contribution made by human rights to the global ethic is that they represent the responsibilities that are owed to every individual man, woman, and child on the planet. While some rights are group rights, in the final analysis the idea of human rights conveys a commitment to the liberty and well-being of individuals. It represents a commitment to the principle that no person, however lowly, is to be sacrificed simply for the well-being of others.

6The adoption of the UDHR also demonstrates the prospects and challenges for ethical consensus in a diverse world. We acknowledge that, in a sense, its formulations are quite abstract in relation to the rich global array of cultures, ethics, and religions. But the fact of its adoption and its longevity indicate that it is possible to identify common commitments and common respect for humanity.

7As part of a global ethic, the UDHR has great educational force and great importance in building and sustaining morale among people who are vulnerable to various forms of oppression. It provides a common point of reference for them and a conviction that they are not alone in resisting abuses. The Declaration legitimizes their struggles.

8Equally, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its progeny have been indispensable in de-legitimizing human rights abuses. The conviction is now abroad in the world that violating human rights is something that no person, state, or entity is entitled to do and for which they may properly be held accountable by the world community at every level.


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