|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.|
The scholar Tore Lindholm has observed that while Article 1 justifies the existence of human rights by the fact that people are entitled to "freedom and equality in dignity and rights," the article in no way explains the source of these universal characteristics of human beings. By omitting any reference to a Supreme Being or Nature as a source of these inherent rights, and thus by leaving enough open the space to allow for a multitude of interpretations, the drafters were able to create a document which could be accepted by the broad majority of peoples. This, in turn, supports the view that Article 1 is not a mere reiteration of Western Natural Rights Philosophy.
See further Tore Lindholm at 31-56.
For discussion on the philosophical justifications for, and the controversy over the source of, human rights, see Preamble recital 1.
"All people are born"
The word "born" means to be brought forth as offspring, or to come into the world. The reference to "born" in Article 1 was intended to reinforce the words "inherent" and "inalienable" in the first recital of the Preamble, but its meaning is nevertheless open to competing interpretations and it may be read as referring to different "births." For example, some commentators draw a distinction between "physical birth" and "moral birth." This latter interpretation can be understood as defining what makes an individual a member of the human family. A moral view of birth is closely connected with the assertion that man is "endowed with reason and conscience." The words remain problematic, however, even if one chooses to read "birth" in moral terms since the question of whether moral birth is attached to physical birth remains unanswered. The answer to this question has obvious implications for the vexed issue of abortion. The drafters are not known to have made any reference to abortion when discussing the drafting of this article. (Morsink, 117).
"Free and Equal"
To be "free" means to not be bound or subject as a slave is to his master; thus enjoying personal rights and liberty of action as a member of a society or state. To be "equal," in turn, means to possess a like degree of a (specified or implied) quality or attribute; to be on the same level in rank, dignity, power, ability, achievement, or excellence; or having the same rights or privileges. (Oxford English Dictionary)
The statement in Article 1 that people are born "free and equal" is not meant to imply that this is the actual state of affairs in the world, as was made apparent during the drafting of Article 4. The words are instead intended to be an affirmation of the inherent Rights of Man as stated in Preamble 1. One way of understanding this statement is to read it in the context of Rousseau's famous line, "Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains."
"Dignity and Rights"
"Endowed with Reason and Conscience"
To be endowed with "reason and conscience" means to be enriched or furnished with two different attributes. First, with an intellectual power or faculty (which is usually regarded as characteristic of mankind, but sometimes also attributed in a certain degree to the lower animals) which is ordinarily employed in adapting thought or action to some end, or the guiding principle of the human mind in the process of thinking. Second, with the internal acknowledgement or recognition of the moral quality of one's motives and actions; the sense of right and wrong as regards things for which one is responsible; or the faculty or principle which pronounces upon the moral quality of one's actions or motives. (Oxford English Dictionary)
Reason and conscience are seen as the defining attributes of being human. "Conscience" is widely regarded as what distinguishes man from animals. This aspect of Article 1 is controversial, however, since it may be read as giving rise to the implication that if a person is unable to "reason" then they are not part of the human family. This logic was in fact employed by the Nazis as one of the justifications for the Holocaust. In Mein Kampf, Hitler stated that "if the power to fight for one's health is no longer present, the right to live in this world ends." He did not want any "half-measures" in this respect and therefore opposed letting "incurable sick people steadily contaminate the remaining healthy ones." The earlier Nazi practice of "euthanasia" and the later implementation of the "final solution" demonstrate the horrific realization of these ideas.
However, the main drafter, Charles Malik, meant for "reason" and "conscience" to be seen "as a function on the level of knowing." According to Morsink, this implies that these words should be interpreted as a way of understanding that people should treat each other "in a spirit of brotherhood." Although the drafters saw this part of Article 1 as problematic, they maintained it in the text out of respect for Malik who felt strongly about the phrase. This decision was no doubt influenced by the fact that Malik was the chair of the Committee proceedings. (Morsink, 39)
Conscience, in turn was seen as "a route into the realm of rights" according to Chang, who was the drafter on whose initiative the statement had been placed. The reference to "conscience" in Article 1 is also an echo of the phrase "the conscience of mankind' in the second recital of the Preamble.
"Spirit of brotherhood"
To treat one another in a "spirit of brotherhood" means that individuals should, in a figurative or symbolical sense, treat each other in such a way as proper to the relation of a brother.
Peter Danchin, Columbia University