Human Rights Day is an international observance sanctioned by the United Nations (UN). It is celebrated annually on December 10. The date was chosen to commemorate the UN’s formal adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Considered one of the UN’s most important achievements, the UDHR was implemented by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The first Human Rights Day was celebrated in 1950 after the UN passed Resolution 423(V), which established the event and invited all countries to take part in it.
Background: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The UDHR was developed and adopted by the UN in direct fulfilment of the organization’s founding purpose: to maintain international peace, foster positive relationships among nations, improve living standards, and advance social progress and human rights. It is the first document in history to recognize inalienable human rights as an international principle. Prior to the UDHR’s adoption, human rights law mainly functioned at the national level, through texts such as the United States Bill of Rights.
Thirty articles specify the rights covered by the UDHR. Article 1 establishes the document’s ethical viewpoint, stating that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Article 2 specifies that the human rights established by the UDHR apply to everyone “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.” The remaining articles set forth the rights held by all people under the document’s purview. They cover essential freedoms including freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, and freedom of religion. Article 4 further specifies that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude,” and that slave trades “shall be prohibited in all their forms.” The document also protects people from torture and cruel, unusual, or degrading punishments. It similarly acknowledges that everyone has the right to be recognized as a person before the law and receive due process in civil and criminal court matters.
Notably, the UDHR is not a legally binding document and UN member nations are not compelled to enforce its protections. Despite this limitation, the UDHR has had a major influence on the subsequent development of human rights law. It forms the foundational and philosophical basis for numerous international legal institutions with enforceable powers, including the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The UN Creates Human Rights Day
Human Rights Day was established during Session 5 of the UN General Assembly, which adopted Resolution 423(V). The resolution calls the UDHR a “distinct forward step in the march of human progress,” and calls for its anniversary to be “appropriately celebrated in all countries as part of a common effort to bring the Declaration to the attention of the peoples of the world.” Notably, the invitation extends to all nations, including both members and non-members of the UN.
How Human Rights Day Is Celebrated
Countries and organizations are free to mark Human Rights Day however they see fit. They generally use the observance as an opportunity to reflect on human rights progress, identify areas for improvement, advance important human rights causes, and draw attention to current human rights violations and abuses. The UN also identifies a specific theme for each Human Rights Day, which highlights a particular issue or idea. In 2020, the UN selected “Recover Better—Stand Up for Human Rights” as its theme. It reflected events related to the global pandemic of novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), encouraging the world’s nations to “build back better by ensuring human rights are central to recovery efforts.”
The 2020 theme also tied Human Rights Day and the UDHR to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), another of the organization’s major initiatives. The UN notes that “human rights are driven by progress on all SDGs, and SDGs are driven by advancements on human rights.” The UN’s SDGs include seventeen objectives intended to create a more sustainable and equitable world. They intend to eliminate poverty and hunger, protect the health and well-being of all people, improve access to education, advance gender equality, and ensure that all people have access to clean drinking water. Other SDGs cover energy generation, economic development, innovation, urbanization, consumption, pollution, and climate change, among other issues. In each case, the UN identifies steps toward realizing each objective. In the UN’s view, tying human rights to SDGs ensures that future social, economic, and political progress benefits the entire global community.
The UN declared 1968 as the International Year for Human Rights and awarded the first UN Prize in the Field of Human Rights that year. Since then, the UN has bestowed the honor on a new set of recipients every five years. In eligible years, the prize is awarded on Human Rights Day. Notable past winners of the award include Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Nelson Mandela (1918–2013) and Winnie Mandela (1936–2018). As of 2021, the most recent edition of the UN Prize in the Field of Human Rights was held in 2018. Winners included Rebeca Gyumi (1986– ) of Tanzania, Asma Jahangir (1952–2018) of Pakistan, Joenia Batista de Carvalho (1974– ) of Brazil, and Front-Line Defenders, an Ireland-based organization that offers protection to people who risk their personal safety and security to defend the human rights of others.