Click here to skip to content

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In 1998 Britain passed the Human Rights Act. It recognised in British Law the European Convention on Human Rights, which had been ratified by the Council of Europe in 1953, but its origins go back even before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948

Universal Declataion of Human Rights, 1948

United Nations: Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
UNA.500/19
Copyright © The British Library Board

 

Large image
Zoomable image
Talk
Curator talk

Where did the idea of Rights come from?

Discussions in the English-speaking world about the origins of rights invariably mention Magna Carta, of 1215, and its demands of no detainment without trial. But a more modern idea of an international declaration of rights had been published by writer HG Wells in the Times in 1939. It included restatement of many existing rights, plus such advanced ideas as 'the right to roam' and freedom of information. Many took up his ideas, and they may have influenced US President Roosevelt's State of the Union speech in January 1941 which outlined 'Four Freedoms' (of speech, of worship, from fear, and from want) incorporated into the Atlantic Charter.

How did the Universal Declaration of Human Rights come about?

The newly established United Nations set up a Human Rights Commission, chaired by Roosevelt's widow, Eleanor. After 18 months' deliberation it drafted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN on 10 December 1948. British representatives were frustrated that it had moral but no legal obligation. It was not until 1976 that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights came into force, giving a legal status to most of the UDHR.

Meanwhile, a Congress of Europe had met in May 1947 in The Hague under Winston Churchill. He proposed a European Charter of Human Rights. Discussions began when the Council of Europe was established in May 1949. The debates over the Convention (as it became), were long and heated but the final document was signed in Rome in November 1950.

Britain had been worried about the effect on its colonies and its sovereignty, but was the first to ratify it on 8 March 1951. It came into force in September 1953. The enforcement process, via the European Commission on Human Rights, was set up in 1954 and the European Court in 1959. Britain extended the Convention to almost all of its colonies. Since 1998 all individuals have been able to approach the Court direct.

How does the British Human Rights Act compare with the European version?

The British Human Rights Act 1998 covers all of the articles and additional protocols of the European Convention with only minor amendments. The European Convention contains fewer clauses than the UDHR but covers them in more detail. All standard clauses are in both, such as equality before the law, freedom of speech and worship, right to a fair trial, prohibition of slavery and freedom of assembly. The UDHR has further clauses covering a right to leisure, and a right to a nationality.

What happened to the death penalty?

Capital punishment had been abolished in Britain for murder in 1965 but remained for treason until 1998, when the Human Rights Act finally killed off the death penalty. The last colony to abolish it was the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2002.

The last woman to be hanged was Ruth Ellis in July 1955; the last men executed were Peter Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans, in August 196; and the last people executed under British rule were Larry Tacklyn and Erskine Burrows, in Bermuda on 2 December 1977, for killing the island's Governor.

Who makes sure the Act is enforced?

To oversee this Act and others, the Equality and Human Rights Commission was established in October 2007, combining responsibilities of the former Equal Opportunities Commission, Commission for Racial Equality, and the Disability Rights Commission. Its job is to eliminate discrimination, reduce inequality, protect human rights and to build good relations, ensuring that everyone has a fair chance to participate in society.

And what actually are my rights?

The list of our rights as set out in the Human Rights Act, 1998 is:
• the right to life
• freedom from torture and degraded treatment
• freedom from slavery and forced labour
• the right to liberty
• the right to a fair trial
• the right not to be punished for something that wasn't a crime when you did it
• the right to respect for private and family life
• freedom of thought, conscience and religion
• freedom of expression
• freedom of assembly and association
• the right to marry or form a civil partnership and start a family
• the right not to be discriminated against in respect of these rights and freedoms
• the right to own property
• the right to an education
• the right to participate in free elections and cultural life
• the right to a nationality.

Facebook

Become a fan of the British Library for exclusive offers, prizes and features

British Library fan page

Online shop

Books, cards, mugs, CDs, videos, fridge magnets – buy now online

Browse