Today (10th December) the world celebrates Human Rights Day. The event is meant as a commemoration of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which took place on 10 December 1948. Based on the fact that by next year the adoption of the UDHR was 60 years ago, Human Rights Day 2007 marks the start of a year-long commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the UDHR. Accordingly, the theme of the day this year is “Dignity and justice for all of us”, which attempts to revitalize the vision of the UDHR.
Looking back at the importance of the UDHR during its 60-years of existence, one must admit that it is quite remarkable. Since the UDHR is, technically speaking, a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly it was never intended to be legally binding on the UN member States. Instead it was meant as a recommendation and a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”. But today one has to admit that the significance of this document goes further than that. Certain provisions of the UDHR form part of customary international law by now; some might even support that provisions such as everyone’s right to life (Art. 3 UDHR) and the prohibition of slavery (Art. 4 UDHR) are part of ius cogens, ie peremptory norms of international law. The UDHR definitely is a powerful political tool to generate pressure on States and governments which are violating basic human rights; although of course the UDHR itself does not provide for any mechanism (eg sanctions) to ensure compliance. The UDHR did have considerable influence on the drafting of national and regional human rights documents. The International Covenants on Civil and Political as well as on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights drew extensively from the UDHR. Furthermore the drafters of the German basic law (!) as well as of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union were heavily influenced by the work of the General Assembly. In addition, apparently the UDHR has been translated into over 360 languages making it the most translated document in the world!