Humans have for thousands of years questioned what is right or wrong, and what ethical principles should guide decision-makers in their conduct of public affairs. Ethics could be understood as the set of principles and moral values that equip individuals with the intellectual and phycological ability to assess how to act or refrain from acting in situations where the action or omission could cause harm to persons and engender long-term adverse impacts. For the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant: “Ethics goes beyond this and provides a matter, an end of pure reason which it presents also as an objective necessary end, an end which, so far as men are concerned, it is a duty to have.”

The notion of ethics and its relevance in politics and diplomacy has a long history and experienced a constant evolution leading to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 (hereinafter the Universal Declaration), and the ten core United Nations human rights treaties that followed. This landmark Declaration was drafted by representatives from different corners of the world, including Eleanor Roosevelt, René Cassin, Charles Malik, P.C. Chang and the then Director of the UN Division on Human Rights, John Humphrey. Eleanor Roosevelt occupied the function of Chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (predecessor of the Human Rights Council), which adopted the Declaration on 10 December 1948. The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Declaration with the following words:

Now, Therefore the General Assembly proclaims this Universal Declaration Of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”(General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) 1948:71).

In its preamble, the Universal Declaration recognizes human dignity as the source of human rights and reaffirms the equal rights of all members of the human family. Hence, the overarching principle is universality. Moreover, in the preamble, it is stated that barbaric events have influenced the decision of adopting the Declaration. These barbaric events could be understood as the First and Second World War. Before the two World Wars, there were other brutal and heinous wars and related events that had serious consequences and implications on the concept of human dignity.

The Universal Declaration consists of 30 articles. In general, the said Declaration claims that all human beings are free and equal in dignity and rights. There are numerous articles in the Declaration that aspire to advance the well-being of humans by safeguarding the enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, political and civic rights. For instance, and to name but a few, Article 3 introduces the first major civil and political rights premises while Article 22 sets out the economic, social and cultural rights premises. Moreover, the Declaration stresses the importance of non-discrimination “based on sex, religion, race, color, language, political or other opinions”. Every human being is equal before the law, which is stipulated in Article 7. Article 14 touches upon refugees where everyone has the right to apply for asylum in other countries from persecution. Freedom of religion is reaffirmed in article 18, while freedom of opinion and expression, a cornerstone of democracy, is stipulated in Article 19. Article 22 proclaims that every human being has the right to enjoy political, economic and social rights.

The Universal Declaration does not stipulate the sources of human rights that influenced the initiative-takers when drafting the said Declaration. But a closer assessment of this question offers additional insights.

In Antiquity, Aristotle claimed that every human being should be treated equally. But the Aristotelian version of justice only applied to free men, not women and slaves. However, the concept that every “citizen” should be treated equally clearly influenced modern decision-makers as this perception remains a guiding thread in numerous societies.

The Greek philosopher Plato likewise emphasized that justice is the absolute and ultimate goal – in other words, humans should be guided by the ability to undertake actions that are considered as right and just.

The Romans were influenced by the Stoicism and they developed the idea of the jus gentium which means the system of law applicable to every human being. Cicero developed the theory of natural human rights and in Roman Law dignity was seen as a right of personality. Cicero referred to this notion as dignitas: Humans were distinguished from animals since man’s mind is a result of reflection.

Thomas Aquinas claimed, for his part, that human nature was conferred a sacred character to human nature. He does not claim that every human being has natural rights, but that these rights could be defended through the courts where “right” is the right thing. Law is also ordinated to the common good, as laid down in Roman law.

When the Magna Carta was proclaimed in 1215, Article 29 stipulated that:

No freeman is to be taken or imprisoned or disseised of his free tenement or of his liberties or free customs or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go against such a man or send against him save by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. To no-one will we sell or deny of delay right or justice.

The American philosopher Thomas Paine, who significantly influenced the American Declaration of Independence, underlined the importance of political freedom and democracy. John Locke also made an important contribution, since he emphasized that a social contract should be agreed upon between the state and its subjects. Locke stated that human rights are natural rights which means that the source of these rights is human nature. This was eloquently argued by the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his ground-breaking book Le Contrat Social. He also ascertained that “a man is born free”, but that this freedom depends upon the social organization of the society to which he belongs. Rousseau emphasized that rights should be defined and stipulated through an agreement. In the modern era, every Constitution reflects Rousseau’s vision.

For the 19th century French philosopher Alexis De Tocqueville, democracy would enable citizens to manifest their human rights. He claimed in his book Democracy in America that he had ”attempted to show that the government of democracy may be reconciled with respect for property, with deference for rights, with safety to freedom, with reverence to religion.”

In Metaphysics of Morals, Kant emphasized a basic principle that is mentioned in the Universal Declaration, namely “the dignity of man”. Kant claims that human beings are rational and have a relative value which deserves to be respected since humans are moral beings. Kant emphasizes that:

Humanity is itself a dignity and I am obliged to recognize practically the dignity in the humanity of every other person. This dignity is vested in every human being by virtue of his moral personality.

With millions of people in the world, still deprived of their basic human rights in the twenty-first century, we must all join our efforts to concretize and realize the vision of the Universal Declaration for a just, fair and inclusive world society where no one is left behind.