Commentary on the UDHR

What follows is the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with comments regarding aspects of the document that foreshadow the present state of overreaching and confusion, and suggestions for a more modest and coherent understanding. The comments and suggestions should be read in conjunction with our discussion of the current human rights movement and proposals for reform.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”) is routinely praised but seldom examined critically. When closely examined serious issues appear that should call its high repute into question. General problems include the following:

  1. Obscurity of the basis of the rights proclaimed, which makes it impossible to apply them in a principled way. Matters are made worse by the intermingling of rights that seem truly attributes of humanity as such with rights that depend on a particular organization of society.
  2. Failure to limit the Declaration to fundamental issues that are properly of international concern and backed by a worldwide consensus, like the prohibition against genocide, and inclusion of matters that go far beyond any reasonable conception of universal rights, like the right to a paid vacation.
  3. The vague but sweeping language of many provisions, which make them at best an agreement to agree and at worst a vehicle for illegitimate exercise of power in the guise of enforcing international standards.
  4. Suggestion of a principle of equality with no clear content or limits.
  5. Contradictions between
    • Freedom, and the demand for comprehensive reorganization of all social life.
    • Democracy, and sweeping abstract rules that lead to irresponsible rule by the elites responsible for interpreting them.
    • Open-ended universal demands, and the need for tradition, concreteness and particularity in human society.
  6. Uncertainty as to how and by whom the Declaration is to be implemented. To what extent is it to lead to world government? What, if any, are the principled limitations on that tendency?
  7. More generally, absence of any principle of limited government or subsidiarity, and a consequent bias toward centralized administrative solutions in order to provide an agency against whom the rights proclaimed can be asserted. It should be noted that comprehensive administrative attempts to transform society—and the present understanding of human rights favors such attempts—have led to some of the most atrocious modern tyranies.
  8. The tendency of the Declaration to exempt itself and the United Nations from the restrictions it places on government action generally.

I believe that such flaws in the Declaration have facilitated the corruption of many aspects of the human rights movement, and that forthright discussion of them can only help the cause of human rights.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

[The world would no doubt be more peaceful if everyone agreed on fundamental principles. The difficulty is to justify particular principles as fundamental, and the Declaration fails to do so. Someone might call acceptance of the universal jurisdiction of the Pope the foundation of virtue, justice and peace in the world. Why would that be less plausible? The Declaration does not suggest an answer.]

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, 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,

[Since human rights as defined by the Declaration go well beyond opposition to barbarism, the Declaration can draw no specific support from a desire to avoid atrocities. One could equally say that it is disregard and contempt for the teachings of the Buddha that have resulted in the acts referenced, since such things would not happen if everyone were an ardent Buddhist.

Attribution of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms to the common people as their highest aspiration is plainly a fiction. It’s an overreaching claim of the kind Marxist and other totalitarian regimes make. The habit of thought behind such claims is in fact one of the things that has led to barbarous acts of the kind of which the Declaration complains.]

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

[The right to paid vacation (Article 24) or to copyright (Article 27.2) should be protected by law so there won’t be a revolution? The apparent strategy of the Declaration, as of the human rights movement generally, is to assert a need to prevent extreme situations—barbarous acts, revolution, war—by establishing a few fundamental points, and then smuggle in a great deal more. Also, it is not clear what is being proposed here. That each state accept internally the rule of law that incorporates the principles of the Declaration? That there be an enforceable universal body of human rights law?]

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

[Very true, but not clearly relevant to a Declaration that gives states reasons to interfere in each other’s internal affairs.]

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

[It is a fiction to treat the Charter, an agreement among diplomats, as a reaffirmation of faith by the peoples of the United Nations. Again, it is a claim of the sort tyrannies make. And how did the equal rights of men and women get into the preamble? They may be a good thing, at least when properly understood, but they don’t seem to have much to do with world peace, friendly relations between nations or avoidance of atrocities. To the extent a woman is treated atrociously it’s not the fact she’s a woman that makes the treatment atrocious.]

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in cooperation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, therefore,

The General Assembly,

Proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

[“[E]very individual and every organ of society” is to “keep[] this Declaration constantly in mind” and “strive” toward some common goal? More overreaching of a kind reminiscent of totalitarianism. It’s a bad sign to begin a document ostensibly intended to set forth basic rights with grand assertions as to the need for universal militant collective action.]

Article 1

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 a spirit of brotherhood.

[It is not clear what is meant by saying we are born free, since we are born into obligations that we do not choose, such as obedience to the law and (at least while minors) to our parents. The most important rights and dignities, for example the dignity of being human and the right not to be murdered, we do possess equally from birth. In many respects, however, we are born into inequality. I am born with the right to be looked after by my parents, you with the right to be looked after by yours; my parents and yours may be very different. I am born an American, you are born a Japanese. The laws, customs and situations of the two countries differ, and so therefore do the rights of their native-born citizens. Attempts to eliminate such inequalities are pointless and become tyrannical very quickly.

Also, some dignities and rights are hereditary, or otherwise depend on the social setting into which one is born, and it seems arbitrary to claim such things violate universal human rights simply because they are hereditary. The status a Kennedy or member of the British royal family has simply by birth may seem annoying and unjustified, but it’s silly to claim it’s a violation of universal right. Human society necessarily involves inequalities. Whether the inequalities are hereditary, assigned by lot, or depend on test scores should not in itself involve an issue of basic human rights. In the end, the overall standard for inequalities and other social instittutions should presumably be general public benefit. Violations of the standard of public utility would presumably have to become quite gross though to rise to the level of a violation of universal human rights.]

Article 2

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

[Does this add anything? It seems obviously true to the extent the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration are (as claimed) those one possesses simply as a human being. Since it adds nothing, this article can lend no support to general anti-discrimination principles of the sort that have become a central concern of the human rights movement.]

Article 3

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

[Sounds good, but difficult to interpret in accordance with abstract universal norms since punishment is intentional infliction of suffering of one sort or another and so can always be viewed as cruel and degrading.]

Article 6

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

[Extremely obscure, since both “equality before the law” and “equal protection of the law” can mean different things. The simplest meaning is that the law will protect my rights and your rights equally, whatever those rights may be and however they may differ. However, the requirements are often thought to affect the content of rights and demand that they be equal in certain unspecified respects. To the extent that is the intention the Declaration becomes quite open-ended.

Protection against “discrimination in violation of this Declaration” does not seem to add anything either, since in terms it only forbids things that are forbidden anyway. Forbidding “any incitement to such discrimination” seems to make it illegal to advocate revising the Declaration in certain ways, for example to advocate restrictions on the right to vote. It is odd for a declaration of universal fundamental freedoms to attempt to choke off criticism of its own principles when the discussion might have practical implications. The attempt is characteristic of “human rights” documents.]

Article 8

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

[An oddly limited provision. It seems to be a demand that the national legal system, to the extent it grants a fundamental right, provide an effective judicial way of enforcing the right. It doesn’t require that the legal system grant any rights in particular.]

Article 9

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11

1. Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

2. No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

[It is not clear how 2. is consistent with the Nuremburg trials and the resulting sentences.]

Article 12

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

[So an effective law of libel and slander is a universal human right. Does it make sense for the Declaration to single out that particular tort and leave out others?]

Article 13

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.

2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14

1. Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

[Does every country have to grant asylum to any persecuted person who shows up?]

2. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

[This clearly implies that there is no right to asylum from persecution for acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations even though such acts would not be criminal apart from their political implications. Why is the United Nation the only organization so privileged? Why not the government of North Korea?

This and other provisions exempt the United Nations and its guiding principles from the limitations imposed by the Declaration on governments and political principles generally. Why? If the principles of the Declaration don’t apply to the highest authority, aren’t they principles of centralization rather than principles of liberty?]

Article 15

1. Everyone has the right to a nationality.

2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

[Is nationality the only aspect of social identity to which one has a right? It seems that it should not be—the Declaration elsewhere recognizes the family as the natural and fundamental group unit of society, and also recognizes that cultural rights are needed for development of personality. It should be a legitimate development of that side of the Declaration to interpret it as implying a right to family and culture. If so, government programs that undermine the natural family and the authority and coherence of particular cultures would violate human rights. Traditionalists should make that argument.]

Article 16

1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

[As a natural functional unit the family involves sex-role differentiation, so the relation between the family as the natural and fundamental group unit of society and the demand for sexual egalitarianism is unclear.

The human rights movement has in fact resolved the tension by favoring practical abolition of the family as a social institution, through suppressing customs and attitudes that support it, turning its functions over to the government, and eliminating distinctions between the family and other groups of individuals living together. Pro-family forces could legitimately counterattack by asserting that the Declaration makes family values a human right. Thus, for example, they could define “gay marriage” as a violation of human rights because it eliminates the special position to which the natural family is entitled by this article.]

Article 17

1. Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18

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.

[Note that this article does not require religious equality. Consistent with it the state could recognize a particular religion as true and act on that recognition, for example by supporting a state church and providing instruction in the state religion in the public schools, just as consistent with freedom of opinion it can recognize a particular political doctrine as true.

Also note that if religious freedom is thought first and foremost to be freedom to have a religion, rather than freedom from religion, there is a contradiction between religious freedom and attempts to impose strict religious equality. To treat all religions as equal, after all, is to treat them all as false, lacking in truth content, or irrelevant to human society. If they are so treated, secularism becomes the established religion, and freedom of religion (in the sense of freedom to have and practice a religion) is burdened.]

Article 19

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

2. No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

[What is the relation between the prohibition of compelled association and antidiscrimination laws? Also, does the prohibition on compelled association make all associations strictly voluntary, so that a father for example could not be forced to support his children unless he had agreed to do so?]

Article 21

1. Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

2. Everyone has the right to equal access to public service in his country.

[It is unclear what a “right to equal access to public service” is. Probably it has something to do with how civil servants are chosen, but its content is left wholly obscure. The obvious function of proclaiming an obscure right is transfer of power to those who determine and apply it. The Declaration does so repeatedly in spite of the rhetoric of “fundamental rights and freedoms” that surrounds it.]

3. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

[There are a variety of ways in which the people can be allowed to participate in government and government made answerable to the people. Both goals seem beneficial, but it is not clear why the particular and quite recent mode of pursuing them described in 1. and 3. should be turned into a universal human right.

Also, the will of the people as the basis of the authority of government is a theoretical claim with little direct practical significance of any kind and therefore little connection to individual rights. In any event, making will the basis of authority raises troubling issues. It is at odds with the view that there are universal rights that government must respect, since such rights must be based on an authority beyond that of popular will. Most often, direct appeal to the will of the people is an excuse for ignoring the plain dictates of justice, generally in disregard of what the people actually think. The institutions known as “people’s courts,” “Volksgerichte,” and “people’s democracies” illustrate the point.]

Article 22

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

[The right to social security and to very broad economic, social and cultural rights seems to imply central administration of social life in general. Otherwise the rights would be enforceable against no-one and so without practical content. The reference to “national effort” supports that interpretation, although there is a suggestion of deference to the organization of the particular state.

Since it is utterly unclear what “social and cultural rights” might mean, the ambiguity opens up possibilities of radical re-interpretation of human rights. “Cultural rights indispensable for … dignity” could include almost anything depending on one’s general moral understanding. For example, many would claim sincerely that the right to live in a culture marked by reverence for God and respect for traditional standards is indispensable for dignity and the free development of personality. Critics of the present human rights movement could therefore claim quite legitimately that human rights require getting rid of a great many things they are now thought to command.]

Article 23

1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

[Another apparent demand for central control of economic life, since otherwise the provision would grant fictitious rights enforceable against no-one. Also, how does this and other provisions relating to worker’s rights apply to proprietors? To poor countries? Does the Declaration require socialism and international economic redistribution so that its promises can be given concrete substance?]

2. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

[Does this mean that salary increases on account of seniority violate universal human rights? That someone who does twice as much work should get paid twice as much, so that piecework is the only acceptable method of compensation?]

3. Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

[Paragraph 2 said that pay must be based on productivity. Now it turns out it must be based on need. The two principles are inconsistent.]

4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

[A whole article of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights on this! Obviously, the provision depends on a particular organization of society and understanding of the role of government. As a universal human right “holidays with pay” is ludicrous.]

Article 25

1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

[This seems to assume the natural family and the sole (male) breadwinner, and to that extent is helpful to anyone who wants to change accepted understandings of human rights in a more traditionalist direction.]

2. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

[The provision points in opposing directions. A requirement of special care and assistance for motherhood sounds like approval of traditional sex roles. Such a provision assumes that the interests of mothers are not simply identical with those of fathers or of other people suffering from a temporary reduction in their availability for work. It therefore lends support to reinterpreting human rights in a direction at odds with the radical feminist sense now generally accepted. On the other hand, to the extent “social protection” includes protection supplied by such social institutions as the family, the provision suggests that the family is a bad thing because it is intrinsically unequal. The very existence of the family as an institution means that the social protection of children varies depending on whether they are born in wedlock or not.]

Article 26

1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

[Since merit is the standard, does affirmative action violate universal human rights?]

2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

[It seems then that there is a universal human right to be indoctrinated in favor of the outlook and activities of the United Nations.]

3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

[It appears that 3. takes precedence over 1. and 2., since the parents’ right is prior. The provision is therefore helpful to those who oppose the general tendency of the human rights movement to emphasize formal government institutions at the expense of informal traditional arrangements.]

Article 27

1. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

[What can this mean? Again, it’s hard to see how the provision could have a function other than promoting central administrative control of intellectual life.]

2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

[Why is this a fundamental universal human right? Why not mention other particular property interests, mechanic’s liens for example? Is it a greater human rights concern for artists and writers to get paid than those who make money some other way?]

Article 28


Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

[So universal human rights aren’t just basic limitations on what governments do, they require comprehensive reorganization of global society for the sake of open-ended goals. Who is to determine and supervise all this, and what connection does it have to the will of the people as the basis of the authority of government? Like many of the provisions of the Declaration this is all very well if understood as a non-binding aspiration, but its status should have been made clear.]

Article 29

1. Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

2. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

[Under this provision, universal human rights are trumped by morality and the general welfare. As stated here, the limitation is quite open-ended. One consequence is that those who favor traditional values need not feel bound by specific provisions of the Declaration to the extent they conflict with those values or undermine the community.]

3. These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

[So it turns out the purposes and principles of the United Nations are the final trump card. Why is it the United Nations and not the Vatican whose purposes and principles are sacred? If a sacred institution is necessary as a final standard, the latter seems more fitted to the function. It has more experience, after all, and besides it accepts that the custodians of sacred principles should not rule directly and so is less dangerous to concrete freedom.]

Article 30

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

[Under this provision the rights and freedoms set forth in the Declarations do not extend to certain seditious activities. Since that limitation does not apply to activities aimed at the destruction (for example) of the principles set forth in the Koran, but only the principles set forth in the Declaration, it appears to be yet another instance of special pleading.

The whole Declaration is based on the notion that government and ideologies should be limited in certain ways. The solution it proposes is to set up supreme institutions and standards that are not limited in those ways. That makes no sense.]