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Remembering the UDHR at its 70th Anniversary

Elizabeth Evatt

I remember when Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.  I was 15.

In other circumstances perhaps I would not have been aware of that momentous event, and I certainly could not have foreseen that I would later spend many years working in human rights. But the Declaration touched me and our family, because my Uncle Bert was at that time President of the General Assembly of the UN. The idea of human rights was close to his heart. Some years before he had showed us the Norman Rockwell posters of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. He wanted those rights and freedoms — of speech, of worship, freedom from fear and freedom from want — to be part of the new and better world which surely must follow the horrors of war. I may have hazarded the view that the Declaration was a good thing. My father was a little hesitant. ‘It’s all very well’ he said, ‘but you can’t use it in Court.’ He and Bert would dearly have loved to see legally enforceable human rights.

Bert had already made a great contribution to setting up the new international order of the United Nations, and to giving it an important role in regard to human rights.  He went on, in his role as foreign minister, to ensure that Australia was closely involved in the drafting of the Declaration. Australian efforts were directed not only to civil and political rights, which were well understood at that time, but to the relatively new areas of economic rights and social justice, including labour rights, the right to an adequate standard of living, and social security [articles 22 - 27.] Bert had wanted legally enforceable rights, but that was a bridge too far.

The Commission on Human Rights completed its task relatively quickly. Eleanor Roosevelt, as Chair of the Commission, managed the drafting process, keeping control of her disparate Commission, by inviting carefully chosen groups of members to tea.

At the adoption ceremony in the General Assembly, which took place in Paris, Bert acknowledged, perhaps with some regret, that the Declaration does not Impose binding or enforceable rights. Still, he said, it is the first occasion on which the organised community of nations has made a declaration of human rights and fundamental freedoms. It has the authority of the body of opinion of the United Nations as a whole.

He had worked hard to ensure there were no negative votes, though eight States had abstained, six Soviet bloc countries [USSR, Czechoslovakia, Byelorussia, Poland, Yugoslavia, Ukraine], South Africa and Saudi Arabia. [When voted on individually, 23 of the 30 articles had been accepted without any dissent.] Looking back, it is nothing less than miraculous that in a world rapidly descending into the tensions of the Cold War, there should have been a consensus, even if an uneasy one, on a statement of universal human rights.

Bert saw the Declaration as a first step in an evolutionary process. In this he was right. Over the years that followed, the United Nations has created many human rights Covenants and Conventions. These are based on the principles of the Declaration, but they go further by creating legally binding obligations for those States which sign on to them.

Bert did not live to see Australia become a party to any of those instruments, but I have worked for a number of years as a member of the independent monitoring body for two instruments, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The monitoring bodies strive to persuade States to fulfil the international legal obligations which they have freely undertaken.

They have to use their powers of persuasion, because although the obligations are legally binding under international law, there are no enforceability mechanisms. Although there is now an international criminal court, and several regional human rights courts,  there is no UN sponsored international Human Rights Court. This leaves an important gap in the international enforceability of human rights. Too many States, including Australia, have failed to live up to their undertakings.

In December 1988, at the 40th anniversary of the UDHR, I was invited to present Australia’s statement to the General Assembly. This statement revived the proposal which Australia had made, back in the 1940s when the Declaration was being drafted, for the UN to set up an international Court of Human Rights. This is an idea still waiting its time.

When you read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights you will see that it describes a utopian world. A world where everyone has their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter satisfied; where everyone has access to education, employment, cultural life, social security and health care; where everyone has the right to equal treatment without discrimination; where no-one is subjected to oppressive government, to arbitrary arrest or to torture; where everyone is free to participate in or to criticise government and to follow his or her own religion. And it is not inappropriate to mention in today’s climate that everyone has the right to a nationality, and to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. 

Bert, in speaking of the Declaration, emphasised two significant points. First, he stressed the universality of these rights for men and women and children all over the world. Second, he emphasised that these rights also bring with them duties. He echoed the preamble in its call to every individual and every organ of society to strive to secure the universal and effective recognition and observance of these rights.  That is the duty for all of us if we are to bring about ‘a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realised.


Hon. Elizabeth Evatt AC is an eminent Australian lawyer, jurist and reformer whose extraordinary career has included serving as a member and later chair of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (1984-1992) and as the first Australian to be elected to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (1992-2000). These are her introductory remarks on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, presented by the Evatt Foundation and Sydney Ideas at the Seymour Centre, Sydney, on 9 December 2018.


Suggested citation

Evatt, Elizabeth, 'Remembering the UDHR at its 70th Anniversary', Evatt Journal, Vol.18, No.2, September 2019.<>


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