Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: The Forgotten Lessons of the UDHR

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) remains the international community’s first-ever attempt to establish a global consensus on the meaning of human rights. Seventy-five years later, the declaration exists in over 500 languages and provides the basis for what the international community considers to be “universal” and “inalienable” human rights. As with any international framework, the UDHR has its limitations, but what is indisputable is its foundational role in establishing a baseline for today’s human rights frameworks. As human rights practitioners and champions celebrate the anniversary of the UDHR, it is important to assess how far human rights has come and where progress remains necessary.

Despite warranted critiques that the UDHR is rooted in Western values, it is the critical contributions of smaller, non-Western nations that created today’s current inclusive concept of human rights. When other frameworks limited human rights protections to white male landowners, the UDHR made clear that regardless of race, gender, religion, language, nationality, or class, every human being was entitled to the 30 inalienable rights listed and agreed upon by the United Nations in 1948. The equal protection of human rights was explicit and repeated over a dozen times throughout the declaration. Its purpose was even more explicit following the harrowing realization of the scale of atrocities committed during the Nazi Holocaust. The protection of human rights was seen as a key component to building peace and security following World War II. 

With such an all-encompassing, well-intentioned framework, why are human rights around the world still at risk today? To start, the declaration is not legally binding, making equal implementation and thorough enforcement of the UDHR nearly impossible. To make matters more complicated, human rights were not equally applied before or after the creation of the UDHR. United Nations member states continue to disagree on who is deserving of human rights protection long after the passage of the UDHR.

One of the factors that contributed to the impact and reach of the UDHR was the inclusion of a diverse range of stakeholders in the development of the declaration. A common misconception is the notion that human rights is a uniquely Western concept. However, without the contributions of UN delegates from the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia, the UDHR would not have been nearly as inclusive or encompassing. Delegates from India and the Dominican Republic played crucial roles in removing gendered language in the UDHR, replacing “all men” with “all human beings.” In the face of British resistance, an Egyptian UN delegate was credited with drafting more inclusive language to ensure human rights protections extended to colonized peoples as well. Their perspectives were valuable additions to the UDHR due to the unique histories and politics that shaped their understanding of human rights, without which the international understanding of human rights would not have evolved in an inclusive and equitable manner. 

In the decades since the UDHR’s ratification, politics, self-interests, and biases continue to influence responses to human rights violations. The Russian invasion of Ukraine demonstrated a clear difference in response to human rights violations compared to those simultaneously occurring in Palestine. Following the invasion of Ukraine, European members of the International Criminal Court (ICC) rallied around an investigation into Russian wrongdoing within a week, in stark contrast with the lack of accountability from Western powers in the case of Palestine. UN secretary general Antonio Guterres and several international aid organizations have stressed the need for the protection of the civilians and called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Tensions have risen and high-level officials have resigned in protest of Israel's violent response. Notably, a recent resignation letter from the director of the New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights called out the failure of the international community to take a stance against the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Palestine and maintain a position based on international human rights and international law.

Sudan has also repeatedly called out the international community for paying little to no attention to ongoing mass atrocities in Darfur that potentially amount to genocide. Even on the heels of the 2003 genocide in Sudan, the international community has offered minimal assistance to bring an end to the violence that has displaced nearly six million people. These examples are reflective of a greater pattern of the international community’s double standard in who deserves to have their rights protected. Human rights mechanisms, however inclusive they are on paper, can only work so long as they are deployed equally between the Global North and the Global South. Although the UDHR set the standard for the equal protection of human rights, today’s implementation of human rights frameworks has yet to meet that standard.

The international community must continue to actively amplify and center diverse voices in the implementation of human rights frameworks like the UDHR. If the global community only considers the American and French Revolutions as the epitome of human rights advancement rights and disregards the Haitian Revolution as a historic catalyst for advancing universal human rights, it is a disservice. In 1948 the United Nations realized that the involvement of diverse voices was critical to ensuring the equal protection of human rights around the world. This still remains true. Ever-growing global challenges, including unpredictable consequences of information technology and climate change, have only made human rights protection even more complex and imperative. Risk is only compounded for individuals belonging to historically marginalized, underserved, and under-resourced groups. To solve these challenges, the international community must pair human rights frameworks with an approach that embraces the inclusion of diverse stakeholders and champions unequivocal equity. Nearly a century later the UDHR’s logic still holds: diversity and equity are fundamental to the advancement of human rights and peace and security around the world. 

Hadeil Ali is director of the Diversity and Leadership in International Affairs Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Rafaela Demerath is a program coordinator with the Diversity and Leadership in International Affairs Project.

Hadeil Ali
Director and Fellow, Diversity and Leadership in International Affairs Project
Program Coordinator, Diversity and Leadership in International Affairs Project