The most translated document in the world , available in over 500 languages,  is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR was adopted in 1948, by the General Assembly of the United Nations, and the 10th December, 2020 will mark the 72nd  anniversary of the declaration. 

Today, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the UDHR still continues to serve as a foundation, benchmark and basis for both domestic and international human rights law and standards. 

So it seems like an appropriate and important time to ask the question: the UDHR – still relevant or no longer pertinent? To answer the question, One will focus on the inherent issues and weaknesses with the “U” in UDHR.

Interestingly, the declaration is paradoxically both simultaneously overly universalistic in language and not universal enough to be applicable to all. By the inherent focus on the document being universal, it has fundamentally missed and overlooked individuals who do not fall within the normalised boundaries created in the UDHR, such as women, certain cultures and indigenous people. 

Universalism: Eurocentric. Male-Dominated. Ignores Intersectionality & Minorities. 

In trying to achieve universality in the declaration, it has caused, whether by intention or effect, the neglect of women’s experiences and the universalising of men’s experience. This is demonstrated overtly by the numerous articles in the declaration that consistently use masculine pronouns. Some individuals suggest that this is merely an archaic generic language convention, which can simply be adjusted by substituting generic inclusive language. However, that is simplistic and it fails to understand how male domination is intrinsically disguised as universalism in the declaration. Therefore, it is deeper than tinkering a few pronouns in the UDHR, it is at the core of the document. 

For instance, article 23 underlyingly assumes the male subject to be the breadwinner for ‘himself and his family’, which to an extent, consequentially assumes heterosexuality and positions women as non-economic providers. Also, article 25 is very paternalistic in nature, in that it affords women protective arrangements such as “special care and assistance”. Lastly, according to Professor Hilary Charlesworth at Melbourne Law School, the most pressing issue is that all the rights in the declaration are solely focused on safeguarding violations in the ‘public’ sphere, which men dominate, and completely ignores abuses in the ‘private’ sphere, where women are primarily harmed.  

These are prime examples where universalism not only limits articles via a gender bias, it also causes necessary articles to be absent altogether. Therefore, this universalising and all-inclusive discourse in the UDHR completely subordinates women’s issues and concerns, and rather reinforces patriarchal norms. Yet, the UDHR is constantly being disguised and legitimatised as universal in various hegemonic discourses. 

The most ambitious and sweeping feature of the declaration is it’s firm and foundational claim to be applicable to  “all human beings” throughout the world, across cultures, political systems, genders, races, religious traditions and classes. Thus far, it has to an extent failed at achieving that. 

The rights of minorities including their specific cultural rights is given no attention in the UDHR, leaving them without any representation against human right violations, in what is claimed to be the “beacon” of human rights. Even though, time after time, we see how intensely these rights are in need of safeguarding. Examples include violations of ethnic minority rights of the Tamil in Sri Lanka or the Azerbaijani Turks and Baluchis in Iran. Thereby, the UDHR has denied equality and protection for some of the most disadvantage groups of society. This all-inclusive and universal conceptualisation embodied in the UDHR is at its core a myth.

Overall, this is an important instance where the broad aspirational language and large generalisations in the UDHR, have partly caused the declaration to not be established with adequate diversity and specificity in mind. 

Some may robustly defend the declaration, and state this is not a matter or concern for the UDHR, but for other human rights documents or treaties. My follow-up would then be that the declaration is not genuinely relevant universally. The UDHR is incapable of being a universal tool for human rights, if it silences and refuses to address the above concerns. 

However, these issues should largely be no suprise, given that there should be no doubts or confusion around the Western underpinning and origins of the UDHR. Membership at the UN was extremely uneven and limited around 1948, with only 51 members compared to 193 members in 2020. Participation in the declaration was further limited in that the world was still largely colonised, especially regions in Africa and Asia.

This Western dominance has carried over into, and is reflected in the discourse of the UDHR and the notion of universality, as demonstrated with minority rights. Therefore, is universalism western dominance in disguise? As it essentially seeks to apply the rights devised by some to all people. 

Additionally, the way of life, cultural heritage and other rights of Indigenous people are not safeguarded and instead ignored in the UDHR. As asserted by Australian Senator and Indigenous activist, Patrick Dodson, one of the most important concerns and continued violations of Indigenous people is the refusal of sovereignty and non-recognition of self-determination. Yet, these rights are entirely absent from the declaration. As a consequence, the declaration does not demand justice or equality for all, it is fully compatible with settler colonialism. It can be argued that the “Universal” declaration is becoming more meaningless and not relevant, because it selectively and contradictorily does not account for all people. 

Additionally, an extreme focus on universality, like in the UDHR, begins to erase variation, as it reduces a diverse social world, where individuals face an array/multiple forms of discrimination into a common pool. There are brief mentions of a few, not all, individual subsections of identity, such as race, religion, nationality, sex and colour, in article 2 and 16. However, there was no acknowledgement of overlap between these categories, or rather any intersectionality in the UDHR. Characterising human rights as homogeneous and binary is extremely problematic, and this is basically what universalism entails and causes. As already highlighted, it causes the trivialisation, oversimplification and neglecting of women’s rights, minority rights, Indigenous rights and how these issues can overlap, like in the Canadian case of the  missing and murdered Indigenous women.

With all that has been stated, it is nearly impossible to uphold the UDHR as a relevant document for all people. It is now time to move beyond universalism to specificity, in order to deconstruct the ignorant and predominant rhetoric, language and representation in the UDHR of all people facing the exact same problems.

Sabrina Berardinelli completed her undergraduate studies in politics and international relations at the University of Melbourne, and is currently studying a Doctor of Jurisprudence. She is a member of the Asia and Oceania student research committee at IAPSS and a diplomatic relations intern at the Australian Arab Chamber of Commerce.  Her areas of academic research and interest include settler colonialism, intersectional feminism, war crimes, penal abolition and human rights law.