With Dignity: Article One

Marika Straw

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Does this sound like a human right to you? Or does it sound more like a recommendation for human beings’ actions toward each other? Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is unique in that it functions not as a proclamation of a human right, as most other articles do, but as a theoretical foundation for all of the rights proclaimed within the UDHR and a recommendation for human beings’ actions toward one another.

Article 1 sets the UDHR in motion with a statement of the core ideas contained within the concept of human rights. It states that all humans are born free: that we should have the agency to make our own choices. It states that humans are born equal — an idea that most of us would publicly affirm, yet one that we often ignore in our interactions with others. It brings up the idea of human dignity, the idea that each human has the right to have his or her humanity respected.

Finally, it introduces the concept the whole UDHR is built around: that human beings, simply by virtue of being human, have certain rights, certain things they deserve. The idea of human rights goes beyond saying that it would be nice if we could guarantee people things such as free speech or freedom from discrimination or equal access to public services.

It demands these things. It takes the position that saying that giving people these things would be nice is simply not enough. There are real human needs in the world. The concept of human rights demands that these needs be fulfilled. Human rights defenders will not settle for anything less. This struggle to fulfill human rights, to affirm human dignity and freedom and equality, is what the UDHR is all about.

When we think of human rights being upheld or denied, we often think within a framework of political action. We think that the way human rights are upheld is by human rights activists pressuring governments to improve their country’s human rights conditions. But this is not the only way to improve human rights conditions.

Article 1 is also unique because it gives a recommendation not for the actions of governments, as most of the other articles implicitly do, but for the actions of all human beings — including you and me. According to the UDHR, we can affirm human rights not only by pressuring governments, but also by acting “toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” The UDHR does not simply state that we can do this, but that we should do this.

I want to step back for a moment and ask a question: Coming from the U.N., which created the UDHR, how much authority does or should this recommendation hold? The answer to the first part of the question is: none. As a declaration — as opposed to, say, a treaty or a convention — the UDHR is not, and was not intended to be legally binding. The answer to the second part of the question is up to all of us, as individuals, to decide for ourselves.

Many people in the U.S. would be quick to dismiss the U.N. or anything related to the U.N. as a joke, as the U.N. is arguably unable to enforce its recommendations in practice. These people would perhaps be quick to dismiss the UDHR as pointless. Yet the UDHR is the most translated document in the world, and principles from the UDHR have been incorporated into the constitution of nearly every new government since the UDHR’s creation. How is this?

I would posit that the reason the UDHR holds so much weight is precisely because it was never meant to be legally binding. Instead, it was meant to inspire. People all around the world have taken the UDHR seriously not because of its origins in the UN, but because of the power and hope contained within its ideas. Should we “act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood?” Is this an idea powerful enough to be worth supporting? It is up to you to decide.