If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

International Human Rights

After the horrors of the first half of the 20th century, the world (through the United Nations) tries to articulate universal human rights.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

- [Narrator] We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is an excerpt of the US Declaration of Independence, and the United States goes on with its constitution, which gets ratified in 1789, to articulate a Bill of Rights, and many will point to The Enlightenment as the inspiration for these ideas. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, cited figures like Locke as some of mankind's best thinkers, so at this early date, nations were at least writing these types of words into their Declarations of Independence, into their constitutions. But despite that, the 20th century is one of the bloodiest centuries in human history. You have World War I, where roughly 17 million people die. In World War II, 50 to 80 million people die, some directly because of the conflict, but many because of lack of access to food and famine. The Chinese are particularly hit. Over 15 million died during the Japanese occupation of China. This idea of genocide comes about, first with the Armenian genocide in the declining Ottoman Empire where over a million people are believed to have been killed, and then in World War II, you have the holocaust, where six to 11 million people were killed, roughly two thirds of the Jewish population in Europe and many others. The Russian empire and eventually the Soviet Union gets especially hit hard in the first half of the 20th century. In World War I alone, three million Russians died. Shortly after the war, you have a significant Russian famine that killed five million people. Then in the early thirties, you have the Soviet famine, five to seven million people. This is believed to have occurred because of Stalin's attempts to make agriculture collectivized. In the late thirties, you have Stalin's purge, where he goes after political opponents, and it's believed that he killed as many as three million people. These things were so shocking to the planet that they made attempts to prevent them in the future. In 1920, out of the trauma of World War I, the League of Nations was founded. It was an attempt to prevent things like this in the future, for nations to talk to each other and to coordinate so they don't go to war, especially at the scale seen in World War I. But clearly, that was unsuccessful, and we have World War II where even more people die, after which the slightly stronger United Nations gets founded, once again with the charter of fostering dialog between nations so that we can prevent these types of trauma for the planet. Early on in the newly founded UN agenda was this idea of revisiting the ideas of The Enlightenment, this idea of human rights, and trying to codify them in international law. In 1948, you have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that's drafted by the United Nations, and it was an attempt to make a universal declaration of these rights that all humans on the planet have access to. I'm going to give excerpts of it, and keep a lookout for things that feel awfully close to ideas in the United States Declaration of Independence, the US constitution, or ideas from The Enlightenment. This is part of the preamble. Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and unalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world. Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outrage the conscience of mankind. Remember World War II just happened. And 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. Now, therefore, the general assembly proclaims this universal declaration of human rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations. You might be thinking, "Why did they even have to write this?" Well, think about it. Things like the constitutions of various countries, especially the United States, these only applied to those countries, but now there was an attempt to write down, to codify something that would apply to all human beings, to the entire planet, and here's just some of the 30 articles to that declaration, to that Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 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 the spirit of brotherhood. This really feels similar to some of the ideas of Locke in The Enlightenment that we talk about in other videos. 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. So this is interesting, because even though I start this video with the United States Declaration of Independence and a discussion of the constitution, slavery in the United States would last for another 80 plus years after the Declaration of Independence was written. Women didn't even have the right to vote until the early 20th century, so beyond this being a universal declaration for the entire planet, the attempt is also to make it clear that it needs to apply to everyone. Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Everyone charged with a penal offense has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty. Once again, ideas that seemed very similar to what we see in constitutions like that of the United States. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Very similar to the First Amendment in the US constitution. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. No one may be compelled to belong to an association. And article 21 is especially interesting. Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country directly or through freely chosen representatives. Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government. So this is a big statement. It's taking a stand, saying that everyone on the planet should be able to live in a democracy and participate in a democracy. The commission that drafted this declaration was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin Roosevelt. This is a map of who voted for this declaration and these are the countries in green. Who abstained, they just decided not to vote for the declaration, those are the countries in orange, and then you have a few that voted against it. In gray are the countries that weren't part of the United Nations at the time. An interesting question looking at this map is to think about why certain countries were willing to vote for it and why other countries decided to abstain at the time. These articles are talking about people having the right to participate in a democracy, the right to be equal, that all people are equal, and in many of these countries, people did not have equal rights. You had severe discrimination in places like South Africa. In many of these countries, you did not have a democracy, but there's a broader question here. It's nice to be able to write these fairly idealistic ideas, but to what degree does it have an effect, and to what degree can it actually be enforced? You might cite things like the American Civil Rights Movement, which did echo some of these ideas that were made in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Maybe they helped the civil rights movement, or maybe the civil rights movement would've happened regardless of what the UN did. But at the same time, you have ideas like apartheid. You have racism and discrimination in South Africa from the beginning of colonial rule, but it was actually at the exact same time as this declaration that the official policy of apartheid, of government-sanctioned discrimination, of government-sanctioned segregation, preventing racial mingling came into effect and lasted all the way until 1991. And so one could make an argument, maybe things would've been worse without the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or maybe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights really wasn't in a situation to actually effect things like this. In many of the countries around the world, not just the orange ones but often in many of the green ones as well, you continued to see things that go against those ideas of universal human rights. Even if the UN passes something and if one country doesn't want to abide by it, what action can the other countries take? Economic action, maybe sanctions, maybe military action, and to what degree are people actually willing to do that?