Seventy-five years on, is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights still relevant?

Seventy-five years on, is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights still relevant?
The deep flaws of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights undermine its relevance unless reformed, argues Emad Moussa. Case in point? Occupied Palestine.
6 min read
13 Dec, 2023
Photograph taken of children of the United Nations International Nursery School looking at a poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Dated 20th Century. (Photo by: Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It comes at a disturbing time when UN member states are not only violating human rights but also questioning their very legitimacy. Therefore, asking whether the UDHR is still relevant feels more pressing than ever.

It took the UN Human Rights Commission two years to draft the UDHR, soon to be approved by the General Assembly in Dec. 1948. The Declaration was drafted in good faith so the cycle of terror and unbridled destruction seen during World War II would not be repeated.

The most translated document in the world, the Declaration comprises 30 rights and freedoms which, theoretically, cannot be taken away.

These include but are not exclusive to the right to life, family, dignity, liberty, freedom of thought and conscience, and protection from torture. All of these were drawn from the world’s cultural, religious, and philosophical traditions to the American and French Revolutions – also, the Haitian slave revolt, the labour movement, feminism, anti-colonialism, and the struggle against apartheid.

The document continues to serve as a foundational benchmark for both domestic and international human rights law and standards.

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Hollow words for sacred rights?

All of this seems good, ambitious, and promising. Indeed, the Declaration has animated the human rights movement, deemed one of the most positive socio-political evolutions in human history.

A glass-half-full worldview would lead us to believe that although it is a legally non-binding document, the UDHR still has the spiritual power to influence the behaviour of state and non-state actors.

It functions as a normative framework - possibly an attitude-adjustment tool  - employed by both official actors and average citizens to name and shame unacceptable behaviours and hypocritical attitudes in the domestic and international systems.

But again, there is another empty half of the glass, and this might be where most of the disillusionment about the international system seems to reside.

The Declaration lacks a mechanism of enforcement. Oftentimes, its impact or lack thereof is tied up to the state’s willingness to adhere to its principles.

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State sovereignty - as per the Westphalian principles, which now dominates most of the world’s political entities - means that governments may be free to decide what rights or freedoms to allow for their citizens or subjects under their rule. 

The problem especially occurs when basic rights do not align with the state’s political or ideological worldview. If that does not lead to denial of rights to all or some groups, it leads to a hierarchy of rights. It means full, undeniable rights to one group and partial - or none - to other groups within the same system.

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Big promises, deep flaws

Think, for instance, of Israel’s ethno-division of rights. It comprises full rights to Jews; slightly fewer for Israeli-Palestinian citizens; and denial of basic rights to Palestinians under Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza.

Nonetheless, the glass-half-full folks like to point out that even though the UDHR is non-binding, many of its provisions are recognised, undisputedly, as undeniable (e.g. the right to life, family, freedom, and conscience). This makes them part of customary international law and, therefore, universally obligatory.

This hopeful outlet, however, still lacks a universally applicable method (or agreement) to deter and punish violators. Political interests, intersectionality, and power monopoly play a critical role in the biased response to violations. E.g. why punish Syria and not Israel; why sanction Russia’s killing of Ukrainian civilians and not the United States’s killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis?

Another concern is that the Declaration deals exclusively with the rights of individuals, with no reference whatsoever made in it to collectivities. Arguably, it may be ineffective in addressing collective violations of human rights typically associated with mass mobilisations or ideologies. Instruments like the Geneva Conventions and the International Criminal Court could cover some of these gaps in contexts of conflict and genocide, but these have their own problems of enforceability and double standards.

Others see it differently. The individualisation of violations is a safe method to avoid lumping uninvolved individuals into the ill-doing of their collective. That would otherwise lead to collective punishment. 

The glass-half-empty group are also convinced that the concept of universality in the Declaration is incomplete, saying its all-inclusive promise is at the core a myth. The UDHR misses or overlooks individuals who do not fall within the normalised boundaries stated in its provisions.

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 Cultural rights of minorities are absent in the Declaration, which renders these groups unrepresented and unprotected against violations against their ethnically or culturally specific rights.


A product of an old world

Among other things, they lament the that rights and cultural rights of minorities are absent in the Declaration, which renders these groups unrepresented and unprotected against violations against their ethnically or culturally specific rights.

Another disenchanted argument points to the UDHR’s archaic language, which arguably universalises men’s experiences and ignores the specific needs and experiences of women. The document focuses exclusively on rights in the public sphere, which is male-dominated, but ignores the private sphere, where women’s well-being is traditionally harmed.

A counter-argument may be that at the time of drafting the UDHR, the UN included only 51 members, compared to 193 today. It came out at a time when significant portions of Africa and Asia were still colonised and possessed no or limited power of representation internationally. The concept of ‘universality’, as such, was much of a Eurocentric tradition that continues to dominate the UDHR today.

That said, the glass-half-full versus the glass-half-empty arguments on the UDHR may well be a reflection of the clashing cultural and political worldviews, a mirror image of the human condition itself.

The UDHR is the product of its time, 75 years ago, drafted under a different world order with a different context in mind. No doubt it has deficiencies; requires further specificities; and needs expanding to include more categories of rights.

But it is still relevant in so much as it catapulted the human rights revolution, inspiring and forming the understructure of multiple legally binding international treaties that make up today’s international and domestic human rights laws. 

Without the ideals set forth under the UDHR and subsequent UN processes, it would be hard to imagine a human rights system, warts and all. 

Dr Emad Moussa is a Palestinian-British researcher and writer specialising in the political psychology of intergroup and conflict dynamics, focusing on MENA with a special interest in Israel/Palestine. He has a background in human rights and journalism, and is currently a frequent contributor to multiple academic and media outlets, in addition to being a consultant for a US-based think tank.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.