Universal Declaration of Human Rights Primary Source eText

Primary Source

Eleanor Roosevelt reads the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on May 3, 1949, which was adopted the previous year by the United Nations. This document asserts that certain human freedoms and rights are possessed by every individual of every country in Eleanor Roosevelt reads the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on May 3, 1949, which was adopted the previous year by the United Nations. This document asserts that certain human freedoms and rights are possessed by every individual of every country in the world. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.


By: United Nations

Date: December 10, 1948

Source: United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. General Assembly Resolution 217 A (III). December

10, 1948. Available online at http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html; website home page: http://www.un.org (accessed February 6, 2003).

About the Organization: President Franklin D. Roosevelt (served 1933–1945) coined the name "United Nations" during World War II (1939–1945) when referring to 26 nations that had pledged to continue fighting together against Germany, Italy, and Japan. In 1945 representatives of 50 countries met in San Francisco at the United Nations Conference on International Organization to draw up the United Nations Charter. The United Nations (UN) officially came into existence on October 24, 1945.


At the end of World War II member countries of the UN wished to establish a Universal Declaration of Human Rights to guarantee the rights of individuals in all nations. This document would help assure that the Nazi atrocities against Jews and others, committed before and during the war, would never be allowed to occur again.

The UN's Commission on Human Rights, a permanent commission of the Economic and Social Council, was charged with the task of drafting a declaration. Five prominent people participated in the development of this historic document. Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of President Franklin Roosevelt, was the American delegate and chairperson of the commission.

Two other members of the commission also took part in developing the document: P. C. Chang, the Chinese representative and vice chairperson of the commission, and Charles Malik, the Lebanese representative and Commission rapporteur, or reporter. John Humphrey, the director of the Division of Human Rights, and René Cassin, the French delegate to the Commission, were the two main writers of the declaration. The General Assembly of the UN adopted the declaration on December 10, 1948.

The preamble to the declaration states: "The recognition of 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 preamble further declares, "Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind. The advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people." Simply put, human rights must be protected by the rule of international law.


The declaration's effectiveness has received mixed reviews from the religious community in the United States. Proponents of the document have argued that, at the very least, it makes an international statement concerning people's rights to freedom of religion, including the freedom to change their religion or belief, and the freedom to teach, practice, worship and observe the religion of their choice. An international statement was better than no statement at all.

Others in the religious community have criticized the declaration for lacking any way to enforce its principles. They have pointed out a number of cases in which the violation of religious freedom has met with no effective response from the UN. Although the UN ratified a binding treaty and created the International Human Rights Covenants to establish international monitoring procedures and an international legal force, violations still take place. Many violations have occurred in communist countries. The former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and China have been especially notorious for their suppression of religion and its practitioners.

Primary Source: Universal Declaration of Human Rights [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 by the United Nations in a General Assembly meeting in New York City. It contains 30 articles, of which five (1, 2, 16, 18, and 19) directly address religious freedoms. The remaining 25 articles concern other human freedoms.

Article 1

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2

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

Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 16

  1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as a marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
  3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 18

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Further Resources


And Justice for All: "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights" at 50. New York: Foreign Policy Association, 1998.

Glendon, Mary Ann. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights." New York: Random House, 2001.

Johnson, M. Glen. "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights": A History of Its Creation and Implementation, 1948-1998. Paris: UNESCO Publications, 1998.


"History of the Declaration." Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Available online at (accessed April 23, 2003).

History of the United Nations http://www.un.org/aboutun/history.htm (accessed April 23, 2003).