Commemorate Human Rights Day - Resource sheet 1
Where did the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) come from?
The 1948 UDHR came out of 1939–1945 (World War II).
Before the start of the war there were a number of countries, particularly
Germany and Japan, which were dictatorships – countries in which the
people had no say over the government. Those governments were both expansionist
– that is, they wanted to expand their own territories by taking over
other countries by force – and they were both ruthless in their treatment
of those who disagreed with them.
In 1939, Germany’s policy of seizing other countries led to war. Japan
became involved in 1941.
During the war there were millions of soldiers and civilians killed or
maimed. The Nazi Party that ran the government of Germany created concentration
and extermination camps for certain groups – communists, gypsies, Jews,
homosexuals and political opponents. Some were used as slave labour under
appalling conditions. Many were simply killed in mass executions, by shooting or
poison gas. Millions more died either from starvation, disease or brutal
The Japanese military government were equally brutal to its opponents.
Japanese troops tortured and executed millions of the inhabitants of the
countries they seized to ‘liberate’ from the European colonial
powers. They also took hundreds of thousands of captured troops, including
thousands of Australian soldiers, and worked them as slave labour, with no
medical treatment and inadequate food. Many men and women died in agony under
The war ended in 1945 only after the destruction of millions of homes and
lives by fighting and bombing, including the use of atomic weapons at Hiroshima
and Nagasaki in Japan.
Countries were left devastated. Millions of people became homeless refugees.
There was civil war and revolution in many of the countries which had been freed
from rule by European colonial governments, but which had not been prepared for
self-rule by their colonial masters.
Shock followed the end of World War II. During the war crimes trials in
Nuremburg, many of the German and Japanese leaders claimed justification for
their brutal actions with the defence that they were only acting under orders.
The world demanded that people accept responsibility for their own actions,
regardless of their rank.
In 1945, the United Nations was created, with a dream of securing peace and
justice in the world by international co-operation. Part of the Charter of the
UN – Article 55 – called for the establishment of a set of
universally accepted and observed basic human rights, so that people would never
again have to go through the abuses that they had just suffered.
By 1948, those nations of the world who were part of the UN adopted a
document that would set out for the first time a set of fundamental human rights
for everybody. They drew on great documents from the past that had set out
people’s rights – such as the United States Declaration of
Independence (1776), and the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights
of Man and Citizen (1789). But for the first time this would be an international
document created and agreed to by the nations of the world and not just one
nation’s document. And so the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was