Preamble section 1:
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,


The first recital of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights advances three inter-related ideas or concepts. First is the concept of “inherent dignity” which captures the essential moral concern which lies at the heart of the idea of fundamental Human Rights. As Henkin states:

‘human rights’ describes an idea, a political idea, rooted in or reflecting a moral code. The Universal Declaration seeks to articulate this idea and to set out in agreed terms the human rights that human dignity requires.

Professor Louis Henkin
Is “inherent dignity” the concept that lies at the heart of the idea of human rights in the Declaration?
Keywords: Natural rights, Natural law

Second is the idea of “equal and inalienable rights” which echoes the long and twisting history of the Rights of Man originating in earlier notions of natural law and natural rights and finding its most powerful articulation in the moral and political philosophy of the 18th century Enlightenment.

Professor Louis Henkin
Is it possible to define human dignity without any reference to man in the image of God?

And third is the instrumental link suggested between the first two concepts and ideas with the notion of “freedom, justice and peace in the world.” By linking, on the one hand, the ethical and moral concern of human dignity in conjunction with the political idea of unrestricted and broadly sharable rights with, on the other hand, the values of world freedom, justice and peace, the opening words of the Universal Declaration mirror the preamble to the UN Charter and firmly situate the Declaration within the project of radical political- legal change initiated by the founding of the United Nations. Again, as Henkin states:

For Jefferson-Locke, rights have a source but no teleology, no purpose: they are a given. In the Universal Declaration, rights are not a “given”; they are declared by contemporary spokesmen for contemporary mankind (and perhaps for future generations) for a purpose: to realize agreed values. Rights in the Universal Declaration derive from and are essential to “human dignity,” a concept vague enough to raise few issues, ideological or political. The purpose of recognizing rights is to promote other agreed values: recognition of rights “is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace.” “Peace,” and “justice,” undefined, were accepted as universal values. And the declared relation of human rights to peace warranted sponsorship of the Declaration by the United Nations, since maintaining peace was its raison d'etre, and muted, somewhat, objections that the United Nations was invading the domestic jurisdiction of states (contrary to article 2(7) of the U.N. Charter).1

The following discussion seeks to expand on these themes, to place them within their relevant historical and intellectual contexts, and to explore the complex relationships between them.


For more discussion on the drafting procedure see Johannes Morsink, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent (1999).

For further elaborations by Louis Henkin, see The Age of Rights.


1. Henkin, "The Universal Declaration and the Cold War", (1998), 15-16

Peter Danchin, Columbia University