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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 21st Century

Gordon Brown


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1Across the ages, people of different religions, civilizations, and political orders have advanced the ideal that each human being has moral ties and responsibilities to all others. And for three quarters of a century and more, in a world increasingly and globally interconnected, the human family has witnessed new and path-breaking initiatives to articulate and expand the summons of this ideal. Among the most vital and powerful of these endeavors is the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. From the start, endorsed and adopted by most Member States of the United Nations, the Declaration has been a beacon and a standard, its influence both wide and deep. It is a living document that demands renewed recognition and speaks urgently to the issues of today – even though states and others may repeatedly flout or fall short of the rights and norms it expresses.

2We, the members of the Global Citizenship Commission, undertook our exploration of the Declaration, its legacy, and its promise with open minds. We were determined to learn from one another, with our distinct beliefs and our disparate places of origin, and ready to account for the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the Declaration and the modern human rights system for which it is a life force. We have discovered in our multinational collaboration that working together to reflect on the UDHR and its writ, its reach, and its impact has reaffirmed our faith in its stirring invocation of “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world […]” There is much more to be done to fully secure the rights and more effectively carry out the responsibilities that are essential to the work of making real the ideals of the UDHR. Hideous and systemic human rights abuses continue to be perpetrated at an alarming rate across the world. Sadly, too many people, so many of them in authority, are hostile to human rights or indifferent to their claims – or willing to devalue them as secondary issues. This makes it all the more imperative to reassert our firm belief in the call of the UDHR as a central mission for all the world.

3Most of this report involves a detailed discussion of the UDHR and its enduring relevance for today. But we begin by elaborating the sense of global community and global ethics in which both the Declaration and our discussions are grounded.

4The idea that every human being is part of a seamless human fabric, a single global community, bound by moral ties to every other human being, is as ancient as recorded history. Confucius, born in the sixth century BCE in Lu State, China, conceived of “all under heaven” as the widest span of moral concern; two centuries later, Diogenes of Sinope, a Greek settlement on the southern coast of the Black Sea, declared that he was a citizen of the cosmos, of the entire earth. The Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – are all rooted in the concept that every human being is the creation of a loving God who cares for us and commands us to care for one another. Buddhism and Hinduism enshrine the interconnectedness of all creatures, the view of a shared humanity is voiced in the Southern African notion of Ubuntu, and the same fundamental insight is found in the traditions of peoples on every continent. There is, in short, a global understanding that, in the truest sense, we are a single human family.

5None of these separate traditions, however, proposed a commitment to a global community resting on the creation of a single world government. And neither do we. Historically, each held that moral duties were strongest toward those to whom we were closest. As concern moved out from friends and families, moral obligations were attenuated. There were special obligations to those with whom we shared a state, but there were still real and significant obligations to others with whom we did not. This duty to care is the basis for citizenship – local or global.

6The idea of global citizenship does not, then, exclude citizenship in a nation or state, or membership in a family or a local community. Indeed, it presupposes that we have significant moral connections at all three levels. As a Commission on Global Citizenship, our charge has been to reflect on what it is for each of us to be members of a global community and, in particular, what each of us owes to all others everywhere. But recognizing that we are all members of a single human community – citizens, as Diogenes put it, of the entire earth – is not just a matter of articulating rights and duties. It involves approaching each other with an attitude of respect and concern, treating each human being as someone who seeks and deserves to live a life of dignity, a life imbued with significance. For global citizenship to have practical meaning, we believe it is indispensable for us to come to a common appreciation of these basic ideas.

7The need for a shared comprehension of our moral connections has become more and more pressing in the past century as the world has become more and more interdependent. Goods, money, diseases, pollutants, and ideas: all move across the globe more swiftly and sweepingly than ever, whether by ship or by plane, whether in the currents of the oceans and the atmosphere or electronically through the revolutionary media of our time, including, of course, the World Wide Web. Our ecological interconnections – through climate change and global epidemics, for example – require us each to join together to overcome challenges that have an impact on us all, and on the prospects of generations yet unborn. Global economic realities, and especially the persistence of extreme poverty, confront us with problems that are practical as well as moral challenges, which we can only meet and master in common cause.

8In the decades since the Second World War, the UDHR stands as a monumental embodiment of that ancient idea that we all belong to a single global community and that all of us must do our part to ensure that every human being can live a life of dignity. With the endorsement of the nations of the world, the Declaration expressed the idea of the human family as a globally shared ideal. Article 1 speaks to the first principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Article 2 holds that “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration” without exception.

9The notion of global citizenship can be empowering to every individual in the world, particularly when those suffering learn of its attachment to a set of basic human rights that are far more than they could have imagined. For this reason, we decided that exploring the continuing role and relevance of the UDHR was the best starting point for developing a common contemporary understanding of the meaning of global citizenship. That ambition is the guiding purpose of this report.


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