The universal declaration of human rights, and Jesus…


On December 10, 1948 (60 years ago today) the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This incredible document was written as a response to the horrors of the second world war, and brought the hope of a

Eleanor Roosevelt with a Spanish Language version of the UNDHR, 1949

Eleanor Roosevelt with a Spanish Language version of the UNDHR, 1949

council of nations who would regulate the governance of the people of the world by a new, commonly agreed yardstick.

I have heard and read several discussions about whether this document has really made any difference to the people of the world. After all, the imperative to support and to enforce it remains the prerogative of the superpower of the age- and at present, we have only one- the United States of America.

For the past 60 years, the tradition of convenient alliances and an acceptance of all sorts of injustices for the sake of political expediency has continued in a way that seems indistinguishable from the preceding 60 years.

And even if the world was willing to unite behind a military solution to uprooting a despotic regime- and after all there are still plenty of these around, even if only a few ever make the media front pages- do we think that violence is the answer?

Does violence not only ever bring legitimacy to more violence?

And then, of course, the lawyers get involved. The UN declaration found it’s place alongside other other national and federated law- the European Convention on Human Rights for example. A huge machinery of sophistry was the inevitable, if necessary, outcome.

So, is this anniversary to be celebrated?


One discussion I listened to brought me up sharp. A commentator said something like this;sermon-on-the-mount

…of course, the declaration is a bit like the sermon on the mount- it is aspirational. No-one ever expects that it will work in the real world.

Of course, I beg to differ on the sermon on the mount.

I think the words that Jesus left us with from Matthew 5 are far more than aspirational, they define for humanity the very best of what we are, and could ever be. They set a direction of travel and a yearning for better things. And they start from a heart to heart connection with something blessed and eternal. Something undefinably GOOD.

And in that moment a Kingdom like no other finds it’s foundations.

Of course, we fail. And the systems that try to organise a response to these words in the form of church and state- well they fail too.

They fail because of legalism, and because of indifference. They fail because of the idolatry of accommodation and compromise.

They are very different documents- the words of Jesus as quoted by Matthew, and the great humanistic declaration drafted by Canadian Lawyer John Peters Humphrey .

But perhaps their application might find some commonality.

Here are the words in full- you decide!

Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7.

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8.

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10.

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11.

(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14.

(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15.

(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16.

(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17.

(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21.

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22.

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23.

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24.

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26.

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27.

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28.

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29.

(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely 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.

(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30.

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

3 thoughts on “The universal declaration of human rights, and Jesus…

  1. Why don’t you have pictures of the “beheadings”, the “suicide bombing of innocent civilians”, the “falling of the twin towers” the “stoning of women” or the recruitment of children to be used as “bomb mules?”

    • Hi Pasco

      Because I am part of a stream of democracy that allies itself with the dominant superpower. And as a person of faith, I believe that we need to shine light on injustice particulary when it is perpetrated in our name, and when it is against the articles of a declaration of human rights that we subscribe to, but then choose to ignore.

      Or does the UNCHR not apply to Moslems?

      Or is it OK to break it when convenient- as an act of war or revenge?

      We Brits know all about terrorism, and have a long history of meddling in middle eastern politics (the lasting consequences of which can be seen in some of the troubles you mention.) These are complex matters of politics, history, economics and people brutalised by poverty and oppression. No matter how we might seek to categorise this as ‘good’ against ‘evil’, and begin to justify evil means to fight back, we lose.

      The Bible teaches us clearly that violence breeds violence. It is simply not the Jesus way.



  2. Hello,
    Thank you for your inspiring writing. I am in the process of writing an article for our church magazine to introduce a new project. We are starting a ’cause of the week’ where the congregation will be urged to sign a petition in aid of a cause thematically linked to the sermon, reading and intercessions. I wonder if I may quote or borrow some of your phrasings for the introductory article? Considering the shortness of the article, it will read awkwardly with footnotes but I would, if you want me to, give the address to your webpage and acknowledge you as a source.
    Kind regards,
    Maria Henriksson-Bell

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