The Changing Fortunes of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Genesis and Symbolic Dimensions of the Turn to Rights in International Law
Posted: 17 Jan 2009
Date Written: November 2008
The article explores the genesis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the turn to rights in international law. To this end, it focuses on how international lawyers have received the Declaration in their contemporary doctrinal and political contexts. The fact that the political and moral importance of the Declaration from the very beginning outweighed its concrete legal significance invited intriguing scholarly reflections on the symbolic dimension of the document. Despite early sceptical voices about its legal and moral value, international lawyers welcomed and reaffirmed its significance during the 1960s and 1970s. While attention turned to human rights treaty law in the 1980s, the Declaration embodied the hope for a new era of human rights protection after the end of the Cold War. Throughout the 1990s a new scholarly defence of the universal character of the Declaration could be observed, later being accompanied by new insecurity and soul-searching in the face of institutional limitations. In general, the Declaration became synonymous with the turn to individual rights in international law, and whenever there was a sense of crisis because of institutional blockades or challenged foundations, the Declaration received new and increased attention. It symbolized unity in an increasingly fragmented and contentious institutional and political environment for international human rights protection. The story of its scholarly reception is therefore also a story of the failed and perhaps unattainable attempt fully to institutionalize international human rights in a cosmopolitan legal order.
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