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Universal, Indivisible, and Interdependent Human Rights

By Allison Hess, Bruce Knotts

Human Rights Day Discussion Guide

In celebration of Human Rights Day, we offer a new resource that invites congregations into a rich discussion around questions of cross-cultural engagement and how identity plays into local organizing.

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The founding document of the United Nations is called the UN Charter, signed in 1945 by 51 countries. One of the Purposes listed in that Charter is “to achieve international cooperation… in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all.” The Preamble to the UN Charter expresses the new organization’s determination “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights.” The importance of human rights was clearly a priority for the founders of the United Nations, but it wasn’t until a few years later that they defined what exactly was meant by “fundamental human rights.” That came on December 10, 1948 with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Each year, Human Rights Day falls on December 10 and serves as a reminder to consider the state of human rights in our world now. In 2019, the situation is dire.

On every continent, the basic human rights laid out in the UDHR are increasingly threatened and repressive regimes seem to be growing in number and strength. UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed recently spoke to the lack of progress globally on upholding the rights of people with disabilities. Although the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development includes clear commitments to address the specific rights and needs of people with disabilities, “wide gaps remain between these ambitious steps and the daily reality faced by the world’s estimated one billion persons with disabilities, some 80 percent of whom live in developing countries where they are the most marginalized in any crisis-affected community” (UN News).

Photo of a child speaking into a microphone with the text "Never too young to change the world" and "you have the right to be heard" floating and the slogan "my voice, my rights, my future" on their tshirt

The 2019 UN Human Rights Day theme is "Youth Standing Up for Human Rights," emphasizing the potential of youth as constructive agents of change.

Seventy-one years ago, the UDHR established the rights to which every person is entitled. It was hoped that by recognizing the specific human rights of all people, these rights could be better protected. Like other UN declarations, the UDHR is not legally binding. By signing on, each country simply affirms that it is supportive of the principles listed within, with a general promise to strive to uphold them.

The UDHR is the foundational human rights document upon which many other international human rights agreements are based. It is generally accepted by the human rights field that, as articulated in the resolution that created the Human Rights Council, “all human rights are universal, indivisible, interrelated, interdependent and mutually reinforcing, and that all human rights must be treated in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing and with the same emphasis.”

While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a binding convention, it has been signed by all UN Member States.  Unfortunately, once the Member States got around to codifying the UDHR into legally binding covenants, they did not do so in a way that upheld the principle that “all human rights are universal, indivisible, interrelated, interdependent and mutually reinforcing.”

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was adopted by the UN in 1966. It is a legally binding covenant consisting of a set of rights to do with individual freedoms and procedural guarantees of access to justice and political participation.  That covenant was signed and ratified by the United States and its Western allies, but they didn’t sign the parallel International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, also adopted by the UN in December 1966. 

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights brings together the rights related to the state of social welfare for which the State must intervene to ensure a more fair and egalitarian society. It was signed by the Soviet Union (now the Russian Federation), the People’s Republic of China, and their allies, who did not sign the first covenant on civil and political rights. 

The result is that the United States enjoys high levels of civil and political rights, but does not have universal healthcare or education, and has high degrees of income inequality.  Those nations which signed the second convent tend to have universal healthcare, free education, and robust programs to alleviate poverty. 

Both East and West ended up with half a loaf of rights, instead of the complete program of rights outlined in the UDHR with all the rights which are “universal, indivisible, interrelated, interdependent and mutually reinforcing.”  What good are the rights of free speech and democratic voting systems when you are homeless without access to healthcare and education?  What good are anti-poverty programs, education, and healthcare, if you have no right of self-expression, no say in how your society is governed, and protesting is violently repressed?

We must work to make sure that all of us in the East and West and all around the world get the whole loaf of human rights outlined in the UDHR. 

As is so often the case, the most fundamental article of the Declaration is the first one. It reads: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of [siblinghood].” What does it mean to act toward one another in a spirit of siblinghood? If we are to uphold human rights for every person in the world, it means recognizing that we are all part of the interdependent web of all existence that our Unitarian Universalist 7th Principle speaks of. We rely on our human siblings and they rely on us to survive in this world. If you look at the 32 articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, you are likely to find some that are fully respected for you personally but that you know are not being respected for someone else you know and love.

It is up to us, individual people like you and me, to think of our siblings all over the world and work to make sure that their equal rights are upheld. Consider what you can do in your community to make sure that people understand their universal human rights. Join the Unitarian Universalist UN Office in efforts to make sure that the rights of all people are respected and protected.


Support the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office to advocate for UN policies that will defend human rights for all, and hold a discussion in your congregation about how to protect those whose human rights are under threat.

About the Authors

Allison Hess

Allison Hess serves as International Engagement Associate at the Unitarian Universalist Association. In this position she connects UU congregations across the U.S. and Canada with resources and opportunities to engage with our global faith, with the work of the United Nations, and with worldwide...

Bruce Knotts

Bruce Knotts is the Director of the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations. He was born and raised in Southern California. He got his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Pepperdine University and his Master’s Degree in International Education from the Monterey Institute of...

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