Since 1948, seven decades have passed. Even though this is said to be the “fastest time” in the history of time, these seven decades are probably too short a period to enable us to draw a line under and truly and thoroughly re-examine the heritage of the most ambitious charter in the history of human rights. Too little time has passed to understand how to realize the promise of the Universal Declaration: that world peace is necessary for each member of the human community to have the right to life. Finally, it is possible that such a request can never move further than a promise, and the decades which are behind us can perhaps do nothing other than confirm that this promise stands firstly as a warning, rather than as any kind of model for use.
The Universal Declaration is often presented as the last in a series of great charters of liberties. Its language and framework do indeed lean on aspirations which gained their first shape in the Magna Carta and were further articulated in well-known declarations in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Preamble also confirms this: in it we find the various bases of attempts thitherto to reach binding formulations of freedom and equality – the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family which are taken as the foundations of freedom, justice and peace in the world; the right to rebellion against tyranny and oppression and the requirement that human rights be protected by the “rule of law”; the belief in the inherent dignity and value of a human person and the equal rights of men and women. The context in which the Universal Declaration was composed resulted in the Preamble already stating the necessity of friendly relations among nations, as well as the freedom from fear and want which every human being should enjoy. The spirit of fraternity – the spirit of the French Revolution – echoes from the first article onwards. The third article which asserts the right to life, liberty and personal security, is a variation on the famous American formulation in which the final place is occupied by the pursuit of happiness. The fourth article appears to assert that none of these three rights can be realized in conditions of slavery, conditions which were valid at the time when the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed.
The Universal Declaration thus represents the sum of various rights which historically gained their attestation in struggles for greater freedom and broader fields of equality. In them were also deposited the great hopes of that time: that the rule of law is realizable, that no-one further should be exposed to torture, that national and international
frameworks are permeable, that people have the right to migration, to a certain nationality. It is likewise a list of freedoms which human beings should enjoy in the conditions which it was believed would of necessity appear after 1945, in conditions of lasting peace.