Universal Declaration of Human Rights 75 year anniversary logo.“THE CREATION OF SUCH A DOCUMENT— its mere existence—must count among the greatest achievements in human history.” That is how Mathias Risse, the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy, and faculty director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at HKS, describes the impact of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which turns 75 this year. Yet Risse and other human rights defenders say the UDHR has done much more than exist—it paved the way for more than 70 enforceable human rights treaties around the globe and marked the first time the world had a documental agreement that all humans were equal and free. That global standard is vital even if the world community continues to fall short of achieving the UDHR’s promise, Risse says.  “The human rights movement will always register shortfalls much more than achievements and would miss its purpose otherwise,” he says. “Regardless, the change that these decades of developments have brought is very real.”

To honor the UDHR, the Carr Center commissioned short essays from 90 scholars, fellows, and affiliates across HKS, Harvard, and beyond to explore the past, present, and future of the human rights movement it inspired. A selection of excerpts follows below. The complete collection of essays in their entirety can be found on the Carr Center website.

Archon Fung

Archon Fung.The UDHR was one of humanity’s milestone achievements. Its global affirmation of the preeminent importance of human dignity has guided and constrained the behavior of governments, international organizations, advocates, and, most importantly, the major and minor tyrants who would violate individuals’ rights for the sake of their own aggrandizement.


For rights to be truly secure, they must be ingrained in our hearts as well as guarded by our jurists. This first-best path of rights that are championed by democratic majorities rather than imposed upon them is never easily achieved and sometimes out of reach. But history shows many examples in which the advance of democracy and rights go together: women’s suffrage in 1920, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Perhaps the fundamental contribution of the UDHR was to inscribe those aspirations in the hearts of everyone around the world.

Archon Fung is the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government; Director, Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School

Fredrik Logevall

Frederik Logevall.From the start, the UDHR mattered enormously for the world. For the first time, humanity had a globally agreed-upon document asserting that certain rights applied to all people everywhere, whatever their race, creed, religion, gender, or nationality. These rights did not need to be earned; all individuals were born with them. More concretely, the Declaration inspired and laid the foundation for a broad array of legally binding human rights treaties—more than 70, at last count. And there was also this: The mere act of spelling out universal rights in a major U.N. document made it easier for organizations and individuals to call injustice by its name, and to identify violations of human rights wherever they took place.

Fredrik Logevall is the Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs

Desirée Cormier Smith

Desirée Cormier Smith.As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this year, the sad reality is that far too many people continue to have their basic human rights denied or violated simply because of their race or ethnicity. Complicating matters is the compounding intersection racism has with other identities that are also the targets of oppression, such as gender, sexual orientation, religion, and disability status. Economic inequality is perhaps one of the most noticeable examples of systematic racism. People of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean comprise one-third of the population, yet make up nearly 50% of its poor. A lack of racial equity endangers lives and weakens society. When we invest in inclusive economic development, we help reduce the likelihood of instability, violence, and mass migrations.

Desirée Cormier Smith is Special Representative for Racial Equity and Justice, U.S. Department of State

Afghan girls arrive at a primary school in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Iris Bohnet

Iris Bohnet.The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 was a major achievement for humanity, including women. Data suggests that we have made much progress in closing gender gaps in education and health, including increased enrollment and retention of girls in educational institutions and improving healthcare access for women and girls. This is not to say that this work is done or that the world has not experienced backlash. Think of countries such as Afghanistan, where girls’ education now is limited to the first six grades and child marriage has increased, and the United States, where the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to abortion. However, overall, gaps in education and health have narrowed the most across the world. In contrast, women’s advancement in the political and economic spheres has been slow. Disparities in wages between men and women persist in basically all parts of the world (with Iceland and other Nordic countries having made the most progress). Across the board, women remain underrepresented in positions of leadership and power, affecting not only their income but also their influence in society.

Iris Bohnet is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government; Co-director, Women and Public Policy Program, Harvard Kennedy School

Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Khalil Gibran Muhammad.Since the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, anti-colonial activists in the United States and in numerous parts of the Global South have appropriated the language of human rights to challenge centuries-long forms of oppression and state violence. Among the first to call upon the U.N. to intervene on behalf of thousands of victims of anti-Black terrorism was the Civil Rights Congress, founded by William Patterson. In 1951, a delegation led by the international labor activist and entertainer Paul Robeson delivered a U.N. petition written by Patterson to investigate the U.S. government for violating the human rights of Black citizens who “suffer from genocide.” The petition was never taken up by the U.N. due to pressure from U.S. officials, but it did receive international attention, especially among Cold War rivals of the United States and anticolonialists around the world. This was an early indication of America’s refusal to abide by new international human rights standards. And yet, despite the blatant hypocrisy of America’s racist treatment of its Black citizens after the defeat of Nazi Germany while claiming to be the leader of the democratic free world, international scrutiny contributed to the gradual demise of formal racial segregation beginning in 1954.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad is the Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race and Public Policy; Director, Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project, Harvard Kennedy School

Mathias Risse.

“The creation of such a document—its mere existence—must count among the greatest achievements in human history.”

Professor Mathias Risse, Carr Center faculty director

Julie Battilana

Julie Battilana.As our colleague at the Harvard Kennedy School John Ruggie, who contributed to bringing the connection between human rights and business into focus through his work with the United Nations, wisely noted, recent debates on the purpose of the corporation are “an indicator of directional change, if not a final destination.” Indeed, while progress has been made, we remain far from a final destination on the full incorporation of human rights into business practices across the globe. My own research connects most directly to Article 23 of the UDHR, which states that “[e]veryone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.” In particular, my colleagues Isabelle Ferreras, Dominique Méda, and I launched the #DemocratizingWork global initiative in April 2020. #DemocratizingWork now comprises over 6,000 scholars and practitioners from around the world. We agreed that if there was one lesson we had to learn from the pandemic, it was that we must collectively place people and the planet back at the heart of our economic and social systems. 

Julie Battilana is the Alan L. Gleitsman Professor of Social Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School; Joseph C. Wilson Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School; Faculty Director, Social Innovation + Change Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School

A worker sews a piece of camouflage apparel at a sewing factory in Ukraine.

Maria Kuznetsova

Maria Kuznetsova.Like many other human rights defenders, I cannot return to my home country due to a possibility of imprisonment. I had to leave Russia before the invasion of Ukraine. Most significant pro-democratic organizations were either shut down or labeled as foreign agents well in advance, with many opposition leaders arrested months before February 24th. Such an attack is not possible without first eliminating any opposition that can protest domestically. Talking to many international leaders in the months before the invasion of Ukraine, I saw a huge reluctance to act. This inaction proved costly for humanity as a whole.

So, here is what I want to say: violence never stays inside. Violence won’t stay in Donbas, Abkhazia, or the Xinjiang Uygur region; it will spread far beyond “deathworlds” when authoritarian states feel they will go unpunished. I strongly believe that world leaders should stop dividing dictators into “ours” and “theirs” and see authoritarianism as a global threat, especially in a century of rapid technological and economic growth, where new surveillance and control technologies make peaceful regime change even harder. We should closely listen to human rights defenders and support them—they are the litmus test of society, sensing first when society begins to ail.

Maria Kuznetsova is Scholar at Risk, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

Stephen Walt

Stephen Walt.Getting states to respect human rights is not the road to peace; it is peace that will make them more inclined to respect rights. When states are at war and fearful for their own survival, they will violate human rights norms with depressing frequency. Sadly, this is true for liberal democracies and autocracies alike. When states are not at war but still feel threatened by foreign rivals, they are more likely to crack down on dissenters, spy on their own citizens, torture perceived foes, and infringe on other liberties, justifying all of these actions as regrettable necessities. Accordingly, the best way to make the ideals of the Universal Declaration a reality is to do more to build a peaceful world.

Stephen Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

U.S. Capitol Building at dawn, in Washington, D.C.

Brooke Ellison MPP 2004

Brooke Ellison.“Nothing about us, without us.” This centuries-old demand was resurrected in the 1990s as the centerpiece of the disability rights movement. At the heart of this rallying cry is the idea that persons with disabilities must be included in decisions, policies, and conversations that affect them. Although this request is simple in its logic and articulation, it has proven difficult in its acceptance and execution.


The status of people with disabilities was neither a prescriptive outcome nor an accident. When people are understood to be the evildoers or the cursed, the unwell, contagious, or the vulnerable, policies to marginalize these people are not only likely but seemingly necessary. History has born this idea out, time and time again. The passage and ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in December 1948 was a humanitarian triumph combating this very idea. The UDHR made a resounding statement that atrocities like genocide and systematic annihilation of people ought to be categorically prohibited on an international scale.

Brooke Ellison MPP 2004 was  an associate professor at Stony Brook University and a disability advocate. She died February 4.

Banner Image: A man walks past an illuminated panel bearing the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Barcelona. Photo by Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States, Chairman of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, holding a Declaration of Human Rights poster.

Suffragettes walk along a street wearing sandwich boards demanding that women be given the right to vote. 1912. Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Getty Images

Afghan girls arrive at a primary school in Kabul, Afghanistan where the government has banned girls from secondary school education. in Afghanistan, by ordering high schools to re-open for boys only. Photo by Oliver Weiken/AP Images

Civil rights march on Washington, D.C. in 1963. Photo by Warren K. Leffler. Library of Congress

A worker sews a piece of camouflage apparel at a sewing factory that produces military uniforms and tactical gear in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo by Julia Kochetova/Bloomberg

U.S. Capitol Building at dawn, in Washington, D.C. Photo by Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA.

Faculty portraits by Martha Stewart

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