The United Nations was founded in the aftermath of the Second World War primarily as a guardian of peace and security in the world. From the very outset, the founders were aware of the close connection between peace and human rights: only under conditions of peace can human beings achieve full enjoyment of their rights. Never again should people be haunted by atrocities; never again should they become the victims of such genocidal policies as had devastated societies throughout Europe.
Accordingly, the Charter of the United Nations, in its Preamble, sets out as one of the aims of the world organization "to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small". Further provisos were included in the text of the Charter itself. Article 1(3) specifies that the United Nations shall be tasked with "promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion".
At the founding conference in San Francisco, it proved impossible, due to lack of time, to complement the Charter with a written catalogue of human rights. The decision was taken, however, to establish such a catalogue immediately after the Charter came into force, through the relevant specialized body, the Commission on Human Rights.
After only a few years of preparatory work in that Commission, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed, on 10 December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) "as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations". The adoption was not achieved by unanimity. Eight nations--the then-existing socialist States along with Saudi Arabia and South Africa-abstained, but not a single negative vote was registered.
UDHR paved the way for the further development of the human rights idea. For the first time in human history, a list of basic human rights had been established that was to benefit everyone, based solely on his or her quality as a human being, without any distinction or discrimination. Earlier proclamations of human rights, including the French Declaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (1789) and the United States Bill of Rights (1789/1791), had been restricted in manifold ways. Women did not enjoy the same rights as men; slavery was legal; and in many countries, the criterion of personal wealth played a decisive role in determining who enjoyed...