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Human Rights Day (external link) is observed each year to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (external link) (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The adoption of the UDHR was proclaimed in resolution 217 A (III) (external link).

Human Rights Day originated in 1950 when the General Assembly invited all nations to observe December 10 as Human Rights Day through resolution 423(V).

The UDHR was drafted as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations” and was the first universal statement that all human beings have certain inherent rights that are inalienable. Prior to its adoption human rights had been expressed in other international and domestic instruments, such as the Charter of the United Nations (external link) and the United States Bill of Rights, but there was no dedicated statement about human rights at the international level.

The UDHR consists of a preamble and thirty articles covering such human rights as freedom of expression, assembly, movement, and religion. It sets out the basic principle of equality and non-discrimination in terms of the enjoyment of human rights, and affirms that everyone shall be free from slavery, torture, and arbitrary arrest or detention. Article 1 describes the philosophy on which the UDHR is based. It reads:

  • 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.

Although it is not a binding document, the UDHR can be seen as contributing to the understanding, implementation, and development of international human rights law. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights states (external link) (PDF) that the UDHR “has set the direction for all subsequent work in the field of human rights and has provided the basic philosophy for many legally binding international instruments designed to protect the rights and freedoms which it proclaims.” There have been a number of international covenants on different aspects of human rights since the adoption of the UDHR. While not all governments have become parties to all of these treaties, all UN member countries have accepted the UDHR. The UDHR has also inspired some of the wording of constitutions of different countries around the world.

The UDHR has now been translated (external link) into 370 languages and dialects and holds the Guinness World Record (external link) as being the most translated document in the world.

The sixtieth anniversary of the UDHR was celebrated on Human Rights Day 2008 (external link). The UN Secretary General launched a campaign for the year leading up to the anniversary with the theme “Dignity and Justice for All of Us.” Past observances (external link) have had a range of themes, including human rights education, torture, and fighting poverty. The UN holds various events and meetings on Human Rights Day and has established the Human Rights Prize (external link) to recognize “outstanding achievements in the field of human rights.” The day is also observed by various government and non-government organizations through statements, events, and publications including the United States where presidents have issued proclamation for Human Rights Day for more than 60 years.

United States Executive Branch Documents

Presidential Proclamations and Executive Orders have been used by presidents to rule on substantive issues of law; to administrate the executive branch of government; and to make general announcements to the public. These general announcements which exhort the public to observe a holiday such as Thanksgiving, honor a particular group such as African Americans, or hold up a particular ideal such as Law Day are usually issued in the form of Presidential Proclamations.

On December 10, 1949, President Truman issued the first Presidential Proclamation for Human Rights Day, Presidential Proclamation 2866 (external link). In this proclamation President Truman stated that "the attainment of basic rights for men and women everywhere is essential to the peace we are seeking." President Truman designated December 10, 1949 and "December 10 of each succeeding year as United Nations Human Rights Day;"

From 1949 to 1957, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower issued proclamations in honor of Human Rights Day. In 1958 President Eisenhower issued the first proclamation for Human Rights Week, Presidential Proclamation No. 3265. This proclamation commemorates the 167th signing of the Bill of Rights as well as the 10th anniversary of the proclamation of the UDHR and the president called upon the citizens of the United States to reread and study both of these documents. This proclamation set the week of December 10 to December 17, 1958 as Human Rights Week. From 1958 to 2009 subsequent presidents have variously issued presidential proclamations on Human Rights Day and Week.

In 2009 President Barack Obama issued Presidential Proclamation No. 8464 proclaiming Human Rights Day, Bill of Rights Day, and Human Rights Week, 2009. Also in December 2009 Secretary of State Clinton issued a statement honoring two champions of Human Rights as a way of marking International Human Rights Day while Ambassador Rice to the United States Mission to the United Nations issued a statement reaffirming the United States' "deep commitment to upholding the inalienable rights of every human being."

Many of the Presidential Proclamations for the annual observances of Human Rights Week from 1949 to the present can be browsed through the American Presidency Project (external link) by selecting the year and clicking on the Display button. Presidential messages, statements and remarks can be searched from the home page of the American Presidency Project (external link).

Presidential Proclamations for these annual observances from 1994 to the present can be found at the Government Printing Office’s Federal Register page. Beginning with 2000 these proclamations can also be found in Title 3 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

Copies of Presidential Proclamations which are not available online from any of these sources can be located in print at Federal Depository Libraries (select FDLP Public Page).

International Human Rights Law

Human Rights Day at the Law Library of Congress

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Last Updated: 02/05/2021