In Honour of Human Rights Day

Fourth in a five-part series on why faith matters to society

“It’s a great affirmation of the possibility of overcoming conflict through reason and good will.” — Mary Ann Glendon[1]

Sixty-six years ago today a document graced the world that set new horizons for human relations. It is called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was the first global expression of its kind.

Leaders from different nations, cultures, religions and political systems came together to establish standards of humaneness that apply to everyone, everywhere. The opening lines proclaim that “the inherent dignity” and “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” are the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”[2]

Built in the ashes of World War II and the Holocaust, this declaration provided a collective aspiration to develop “friendly relations between nations”[3] and to bring out the highest and best in our common civilization here on earth.

What’s the big deal about human rights?

Every person, regardless of religion, race, gender or nationality, possesses fundamental rights simply by being human. They include the right to life, liberty, security, equal protection of the law and the freedom of thought, speech and religion.

These human rights protect the weak from the abuses of tyranny. They act as a buffer and arbiter between the lone individual and the concentration of power. These norms and principles defy the natural tendency to dominate one another. Human rights help us move beyond the harmful idea that might makes right.

The strength of the universal declaration lies not so much in enforcing these rights but in its role as a teacher that shapes ideals and molds incentives toward the common good. Human rights bolster our obligations toward one another and give dignity to how we work, worship, interact with our communities and raise our families. Accordingly, human rights complement our civic and democratic engagement. Rights without relationships and responsibilities can only go so far.

Keeping the faith, in private and in public

Article 18 of the declaration is brief but powerful: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”[4]

Freedom of religion is not just some abstract concept that floats in the minds of lawyers and legislators. Rather, it moves and grows in the common soil of our everyday lives. We take our beliefs everywhere we go. They form who we are and drive us to share them with others. We want to influence our communities and the world around us. In this way, our private and public lives are intertwined. It is a paltry freedom indeed that allows us to practice and voice our faith in the privacy of our own home or church, but not in the open exchange of the public square.

The legacy of the universal declaration

The establishment of human rights is an achievement to be proud of. They play a vital role in managing the conflicts and differences so prevalent in our pluralistic world. They help keep us on the same civilizational page. The aims they promote ennoble human existence, inspire decency and urge accountability.

Legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon explained: “Practically every constitution in the world that has a bill of rights is modelled or influenced in some way by that core of principles that were deemed to be fundamental” in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[5] Legal frameworks and moral norms of countries around the world have drawn from this document. It continues to put international relations on a more equal footing.

The world is far from perfect in honoring human rights. Injustices and atrocities still occur, but the universal declaration makes it possible to prevent, contain or diminish them. Like all things worth keeping, human rights will forever require our faith and vigilance.

[1] Mary Ann Glendon, Facing History and Ourselves, “Mary Ann Glendon and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Aug. 4, 2008.

[2] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted 10 December 1948 UNGA Res 217 A(III) (UDHR) preamble.


[4]Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted 10 December 1948 UNGA Res 217 A(III) (UDHR) article 18.

[5] Mary Ann Glendon, Facing History and Ourselves, “Mary Ann Glendon and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Aug. 4, 2008.

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