The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

After the Second World War and the creation of the United Nations, the international community started to pay more attention to the issue of human rights and the need to ensure their protection at an international level. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1948 (after a two year long drafting and negotiation process), was the first concrete step in this direction.

Following a preamble where it is underlined, among others, that UN member states have pledged to achieve ‘the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms’, the Declaration emphasises the fact that human rights and fundamental freedoms are equally applicable to all individuals, irrespective of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. The document then describes specific human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as: the right to life and liberty, equality before law, the right to an effective remedy for acts violating the fundamental rights, the right to privacy, the right to property, the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the right to education, etc. The Declaration also notes that any limitation in the exercise of rights and freedom can be determined only by law and only 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’.

Although it had been adopted long before the Internet appeared, the Convention has a number of provisions which are of direct relevance for digital policy and the protection of human rights in the digital environment. The right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression, recognised through the Convention, are two fundamental rights and freedoms that also have relevance in the online space, and whose protection is therefore equally important in both the offline and online world. To this aim, a number of international bodies, such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament, have affirmed the principle according to which the same rights that people have online must also be protected online.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while not a treaty itself, constituted the foundation of international human rights law, as it inspired the elaboration and adoption of a large number of legally binding international, regional, and national legal instruments dealing with the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Examples in this regard include: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (these two Covenants, together with the Universal Declaration, are known as the ‘International Bill of Human rights’), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.   

The promotion and protection of human rights, on the basis of the Convention and the subsequent human rights international law, falls within the responsibility of both nation states and international intergovernmental organisations. Within the UN framework, a number of bodies address human rights issues: the Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, as well as a number of Special Representatives mandated to look into specific human rights such as the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression, etc.