A long-read introduction to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in celebration of its 70th anniversary in 2018!

Greetings, friends. Big news: this year, 2018, marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a cornerstone of the international human rights law that we all enjoy today. Happy birthday to the UDHR! Long may it continue to be respected.

The following look at the UDHR pays homage to this special document, which has directly impacted your life (promise), and, which laid the cornerstone for many of the important human rights to which women and girls in STEM fields are entitled, today.

What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)?

The horrors of World War II resulted in the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948, in a General Assembly resolution. This happened just three years after the United Nations Charter, which is a United Nations treaty, was adopted by countries in 1945 and established the United Nations. The adoption of the UDHR was an unprecedented recognition at international level of the human rights and fundamental freedoms that each person in the human family holds. And by the way, we call the beneficiaries of human rights, “rights-holders“.

The Universal Declaration, or the UDHR, as it is commonly called by people who like to use a lot of acronyms, sets forth in writing certain rights held by individuals (individual rights), and also some rights held by peoples or groups (collective rights). Individual and collective rights are complementary and mutually reinforcing. Looking at the title, you’ll notice that it says, ‘Declaration’, and not, ‘Treaty’, or ‘Protocol’, or ‘Charter’, or ‘Pact’ – or any other word that is commonly used to refer to a treaty. It’s a declaration, which is different from a treaty. However, it’s widely accepted that this declaration is also part of binding international law, being universal, and accepted by countries. Together with two human rights treaties (the CCPR and the CESCR), these three documents are collectively called the international bill of human rights. It’s important. It’s foundational. We need to spend a little time on it.

What’s in the UDHR?

Everyone should take a little time and read the UDHR. After all, it is talking about your rights. Don’t you want to know what it says?

In it, there are a few articles that are of key significance to women and girls in STEM fields. Of course, if you read the Introduction to Human Rights text in the Standards section of this website, you will remember that human rights are indivisible. That means, for example, it’s really hard to protect someone’s freedom of association or their right to physical and mental integrity if, say, that person is locked up unfairly in arbitrary detention (and their right to be free from arbitrary detention is violated). It’s hard to protect the right to life if public policies are not adequately protecting the right to health or to an adequate standard of living. The different human rights are really linked to each other.

This is absolutely also the case when it comes to the human rights of women and girls in STEM. There are a lot of especially relevant rights in this context, and, a lot of connections between those rights. (If you are into networks, relational databases, or data visualization, that should be pretty exciting. Right?)

Let’s look at a couple of examples of rights in the UDHR. But wait! Before we do that, let’s do one other thing.

The structure of the UDHR: Preamble and articles

Let’s look at the structure of the UDHR. Go ahead and open a browser and do a search for, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and find the document. Or, click on it here:

If you opened the document, you will notice that it is divided into two sections: a Preamble, and Articles. This is a common thing for international human rights standards. And, you’ve probably heard of preambles before. Your national constitution might very well have a preamble, and different articles. What’s a preamble? It’s the stuff that comes before the articles. Wait, that’s a terrible definition. What is it really?


Well, really, a preamble is usually text that is setting out a few things, before the drafters of the document get to the ‘meat’ (or vegan alternative) of the articles. Things like:

  • why the drafters are writing this document: goals, purposes, what they want to achieve;
  • what problems the drafters were facing when this document was drafted – recognition of something in history, or of an existing problem and why something needed to be said and/or done;
  • what led them here and now, to write and adopt this thing;
  • usually it also refers to any important precedent that the drafters want to incorporate into this text in some way – for example, it might refer to other important documents, texts, or standards; this is important because there is nothing countries love more than agreed language (unless they hate that agreed language): when something is controversial to negotiate, countries like to fall back on language that they were able to agree on before, and not reinvent the wheel, or open up a particular can of worms again, so to speak;
  • in documents drafted under the auspices of international organizations like the United Nations (as the UDHR was), often, in a preamble, you will also find a reference to some procedural decision that was taken in the past that said, “Hey, we (the member States of this international organization, whoever those member States might be) all decide we need to write this document- let’s all write this document on X topic. Ok? Ok. Let’s do it. Let’s even set a deadline for ourselves, in some cases. Ok? Ok. You cool with that? I’m cool with that. We’re all cool with that.” Bam. (The President or Chair of that meeting slams the gavel down on the table.) That decision got adopted, in the past. Such a procedural decision like that, which launches a drafting process of some kind, is often called the ‘mandate’ for doing something. It’s probably in a UN resolution. It probably said, what they wanted to happen, who they wanted to do it, what kind of scope that thing should cover, and when they wanted it done by. (More or less.) Mandate has the nuanced senses of, 1. permission, and, 2. this (and only this, sometimes) must happen. Sometimes,  but not always, the more nervous countries are about doing something, the longer the title for that thing will be, because they start to get really specific so that they can agree on anything at all. So when they start the text of the actual document that got negotiated as a result of this mandate that was given in the past for it to be done, one of the first things they want to do is to say, “We aren’t acting out of the blue here- everyone remember how we all decided to write this thing? We said it here. Back in the day.” (And they refer to the resolution that created the mandate.)

So that’s the kind of thing you will find in a preamble.


Now let’s talk about articles. The articles, or numbered paragraphs, in UN declarations, resolutions, and treaties are often sort of like a ‘to do’ list. Whereas a preamble contains things (including standards that might be considered incorporated) to keep in mind, and also, whereas a preamble often even starts with the word ‘whereas’ — the articles, which usually have numbers, and a handy sign saying, ‘Article 1, or Article 2,” etc., spell out, one by one, things that are the main points: the main things that needed to be said, in a declaration, or the obligations that have to be implemented. In resolutions of the United Nations, people refer to two kinds of paragraphs: preambular paragraphs (the text in the preamble), and operational paragrapus (the text in the numbered paragraphs). With the UDHR, we have a Preamble, and we have Articles: thirty of them, to be precise.

UDHR articles especially relevant to women and girls in STEM fields

So finally, let’s list some articles in the UDHR that refer to the human rights of women and girls in STEM fields! The UDHR only has 30 articles, but, wow, there are a lot that are particularly relevant to women and girls in STEM fields. We’re going to start by reading some of these together. In some cases, emphasis is added to the original text, which doesn’t have bold font like it does here.

First, big, important article: equality. Also, solidarity. Notice that they put this first, showing how important it is and how everything else flows from it. Article 1:

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.

They forgot to say, sisterhood! And we must be talking about siblings who get along. This is a big deal, article 1 is. It even applies to people you don’t like or whose opinions you don’t share or who look different from you (but we’ll come to that in a moment).

Next big one. Nondiscrimination, including, based on sex. Article 2:

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.

Okay! That was quick! The drafters quickly clarified, after Article 1: Whoa, equality, does this mean everyone? Yes, everyone, says Article 2 (as if reading our minds). Check out the list of ‘grounds of nondiscrimination‘ listed in that first sentence in Article 2, above. ‘grounds of nondiscrimination‘ is a really useful human rights term, which means, you can’t discriminate against someone (treat them differently) on the basis of a specific listed reason (ground, basis); for example, you can’t discriminate against someone based on their political opinion, what country they come from, etc. The very brilliant thing about this article is how it makes what’s called a ‘non-exhaustive’ or ‘open list‘: the drafters, with great foresight and in recognition of how societies evolve and different grounds of discrimination come up, included this important ‘or other status’ at the end of that list of specifc grounds, and ends the list with an open term that means other terms can be included.  It’s kind of like a dot-dot-dot (‘…’) at the end – it means, the list is not finished here (it’s left open), and, we have not listed all of the grounds here (it’s non-exhaustive). (In contrast, it would actually be an exhaustive list if it had indeed listed all of the terms that should be included. But it didn’t do that.) Listing is a big thing in international human rights standards: who’s in, who’s out, who’s protected, who’s not. So, it’s clear: women and girls are in. Sex is clearly listed here as a prohibited ground of discrimination. It is a no-no to treat someone differently, because she is a woman or girl (or based on other status).

Next big one: Article 6. Legal capacity.

Article 6.

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

The right to equal recognition before the law includes both the ability to hold rights (like legal standing), and the ability to be an actor in law (legal agency). It says everyone. Also, we have to read this article together with articles 1 and 2.

Next big one. Right to effective remedy. Article 8:

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.

What does this mean? It means, if someone messes with your rights, another right kicks in: your right to an effective remedy. That was a good idea. There are some more specific standards that people have been working on in the human rights field, talking just about what an effective remedy is, and what it looks like to have this protected. This can be a tough one for women depending on the context, which is too bad and needs work.

Next big one: right to privacy. Article 12.

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.

Here’s your right to privacy that you probably care about. You do, right?

But wait! If you were going to say, “But I don’t care about my right to privacy. I have nothing to hide! In fact, I want to be famous!” Hang on a moment, think about it. Do you really believe that all governments and holders and users of technology, today, and in the future, will be benevolent? History is long. (We hope.) This article is here for a reason. ‘Nuff said. And, even if you become a famous person, you will want to protect yourself from your paparazzi and adoring fans, at some moment. You will want to go on your solar-powered, self-piloted jet on a romantic journey to your private island, undisturbed, or to prepare there in solitude for your next film or YouTube video or future equivalent.

Please get to know your right to privacy. Also, think about future generations on this one. You probably want your kids to enjoy their right to privacy, too. So, help us all, help your future self, and help future generations out, refrain from saying you don’t care if people spy on you. Vive l’amour. Invite us to the premier.

Next big right/freedom. Freedom of movement. Article 13:

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.

You might want to move around to work or study, inside or outside your country. Excellent news: you have the right to do that. It’s one of your human rights.

Next big one: right to marry and to found a family. Article 16:

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.

Okay, this is a big one for women. ‘of full age’- what’s that? Adults. In international human rights law now, we would tend to talk about ‘children’, or adults. Children are people under 18. It’s a little vague here because, according to custom, some different places let children (some under 18) marry, but today, a lot of people advocate against child marriage. This should be looked at in light of later-elaborated standards that now exist, for example, as in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We’re talking here about the right to marry and to found a family, and there’s a temporal factor: to marry, during marriage, and when the marriage dissolves (ends). It’s a big deal for women because they have a right to have children if they want to, so, for example, national legislation, and employers, should respect that right and not just kick them out of their jobs or not hire them when they think they’re going to have children. Also, forced marriage is not ok, so you can pick whom you marry, and when. Family deserve respect by society and the State.

Next big one: right to property. Article 17:

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.

If you and your friends want to build a model of the space shuttle, no one should steal it from you or smash it up just because they are jealous of its fantastic-ness. If you save up money and buy a computer, that baby is yours. If the nongovernmental organization you started with a bunch of people purchases an office building, that office building belongs to the nongovernmental organization. You (or you in association with others) can own stuff (also money), and no one can take it from you arbitrarily (just because they feel like it).

An example of something that’s helpful for people to enjoy this right is when people can access bank accounts: say, when post offices, which are all over the country, open up banking services including in rural areas.

Next big right: all the rest. All important, actually. Try to think of examples where these rights come up in your life. Articles 18 – 30:

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.

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.

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 of equal access to public service in his country.
(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.

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.

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

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.
(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.

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

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.
(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.

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.

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

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.

After the UDHR: United Nations Human Rights Treaties

Things got even more exciting after the UDHR, with the regard to the international protection of human rights. Countries drafted and adopted United Nations human rights treaties, which you can find here, in the official United Nations Treaty Collection: https://treaties.un.org/Pages/Treaties.aspx?id=4&subid=A&lang=en.

Interactive exercise on the UDHR

Suggested exercise #1: Read the UDHR, and pick your favorite article. Pick one that is a human right that means something to you, personally. Do you have an experience that you remember, when this right came up? What was it?

Suggested exercise #2: Visit this link: https://www.un.org/en/udhr-video/curated.shtml, and record yourself reading your favorite article out loud.

Suggested exercise #3: Option 1: For fun, practice writing a mini-resolution about something that you are going to do. Give it one preambular paragraph, which talks about why you’re doing it, and to be fancy, start that paragraph with the word, ‘Whereas‘. Write that in fancy letters, even. Then, also give your declaration one numbered paragraph: an operational paragraph, something you’re going to do. Option 2: Write a mini-declaration. Maybe there’s a human right that got left out of the UDHR, that you can think of. Write one preambular paragraph recalling something (start it with ‘Whereas’), and then write an article that states the right. (Who has it? what is it a right to?) You can also do this exercise with a friend.

For example:

Whereas I recognize how I forgot my umbrella the last time it rained;

Article 1.
I will hang the umbrella on the chair by the door and keep it there.