The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Modern History of Human Rights

54 Pages Posted: 9 Nov 2017

Date Written: November 7, 2017


Beginning with the phrase “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) proclaims its purpose of establishing global human rights from the outset. As a common standard of achievement for all signatory nations, the UDHR constitutes an essential cornerstone in the modern history of human rights by drawing upon ancient to contemporary philosophies, responses to the heinous crimes of World War II, and various visions for future human rights standards. Despite diverging viewpoints from many of the drafting parties and states, the UDHR eventually transcended conflict to form the underpinnings of a moral compass for all of humankind.

This essay first explores how the UDHR came into formation by reviewing the historical origins of human rights, global dynamics prior to the UDHR, the drafting process and key debates involved, and finally its achieved compromise and ultimate unanimous adoption. Then, the essay examines ways in which the UDHR has evolved, from both a legal and moral angle, since its adoption in the context of past achievements and current challenges. From a historical point of view, I argue that the UDHR is a living document that has and is expected to change as our societies continue to evolve.

Keywords: human rights, human rights project, international human rights, UDHR, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights standards, Human Rights Commission, global human rights, future human rights, United Nations, United States Declaration of Independence, political rights, economic rights, social

JEL Classification: K38, K33, Z13, Z18, N40, K19

Suggested Citation

Duan, Fengyu, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Modern History of Human Rights (November 7, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

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