The House of Lords is scheduled to consider the following question for short debate on 11 December 2023:

Baroness Anelay of St Johns (Conservative) to ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to promote the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

Baroness Anelay is currently chair of the United Nations Association UK, a vice-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the United Nations and a trustee of the Parliamentary Human Rights Trust.[1]

1. What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948.[2] Meeting in Paris, France, the assembly endorsed the declaration’s preamble and 30 articles which set out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected. The declaration is not a treaty and has not been signed or ratified by states, but was the precursor to more than 80 subsequent human rights conventions and treaties, including the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) agreed two years later.[3] The declaration has since been translated into hundreds of languages and dialects, making it the world’s most translated document.[4]

The declaration enshrined rights ranging from everyone being born free and equal in dignity and rights (article 1) through to no state, group or person having any right to destroy any of the rights and freedoms set out in the declaration (article 30).[5] The declaration is not formally binding on UN member states, but the rights and freedoms included in it were used to create other binding instruments such as the ECHR.[6]

The UN General Assembly also adopted provisions on publicising the declaration at its meeting on 10 December 1948:

Publicity to be given to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The General Assembly,

considering that the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an historic act, destined to consolidate world peace through the contribution of the United Nations towards the liberation of individuals from the unjustified oppression and constraint to which they are too often subjected

considering that the text of the declaration should be disseminated among all peoples throughout the world

1. recommends governments of member states to show their adherence to article 56 of the charter by using every means within their power solemnly to publicise the text of the declaration and to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories

2. requests the secretary-general to have this declaration widely disseminated and, to that end, to publish and distribute texts, not only in the official languages, but also, using every means at his disposal, in all languages possible

3. invites the specialised agencies and non-governmental organisations of the world to do their utmost to bring this declaration to the attention of their members[7]

Human Rights Day is marked each year on 10 December to mark the declaration’s adoption.[8]

This year, on the occasion of the declaration’s 75th anniversary, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, also known as UN Human Rights, has called on member states to “rejuvenate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, demonstrate how it can meet the needs of our time and advance its promise of freedom, equality and justice for all”.[9] Reflecting on the declaration’s legacy, the human rights body has said:

For 75 years, the core ambition of the declaration has been to infuse societies with equality, fundamental freedoms and justice. It enshrines the rights of all human beings and is a global blueprint for international, national, and local laws and policies and a bedrock of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.[10]

2. How has the government been promoting the declaration’s principles?

In April 2023, the UK’s ambassador to the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations in Geneva, Simon Manley, made a statement on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[11] He described the declaration as a foundational instrument of the international human rights system that had “guided us in our obligations to promote and protect human rights of all”. He added that “previously abstract notions of universality, equality, non-discrimination and inherent dignity are codified in international law and practice, thanks to the work began” by the declaration.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office publishes an annual human rights and democracy report. In the most recent report, published in July 2023, Minister for Human Rights Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon wrote in a foreword:

In the aftermath of the second world war, countries came together vowing that such atrocities should never happen again. From that global exercise, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born.

Over the subsequent decades, countries have worked together to strengthen the world’s human rights architecture through a collection of agreements that guarantee the rights of every individual.

However, as we detail in this 2022 annual human rights and democracy report, for far too many people, the hatred, depravity and atrocities of the second world war have not been consigned to history. Too many repressive governments have chosen to disregard their international commitments, and rule through discrimination, persecution and violence.

The UK government holds an unwavering conviction that the human rights of every person still matter. Our annual report details how we are working with our allies to stand up for the marginalised and repressed across the full range of our human rights work.


The UK has demonstrated its commitment and focus on human rights across the world. The two conferences we convened in 2022 also reflected our ability to pull together not just governments, but civil society, leaders, and survivors to strengthen our collective responses.

Across the full range of human rights, when discrimination is not identified and addressed, we often witness marginalisation, persecution, worse still, violence and attacks on individuals and communities. Therefore, it is important to act.

We should also acknowledge and recognise that different countries move at different speeds. Some face quite unique challenges. I believe we should be cognisant of where progress is being made and, as a constructive partner, lean in and share expertise and insight in order to accelerate further progress. There are occasions where I have seen private, effective, diplomacy unlock issues and cases. There are of course other times where through collaboration, and collective and public action, we have called out the most serious human rights violations.

Whatever the approach or the issue, and accepting that protecting and strengthening human rights poses difficult challenges, we can affect change through our advocacy and perseverance. Ultimately, if our work leads to changing the trajectory for the better for the lives of individuals and communities, then it’s worth every second of our time.[12]

On human rights and the multilateral system, the report said:

The UN is the leading international forum for the development of collective standards on human rights, scrutiny of human rights violations and abuses, and exchanges on human rights between states. The UK is currently a member of the principle intergovernmental forum on human rights, the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council (HRC). Other important UN forums include the UN General Assembly (UNGA) Third Committee, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

In 2022, the UK led on a number of HRC resolutions, including on Syria, Sudan, South Sudan and Sri Lanka. We supported over 40 resolutions, including actively voting for 18 resolutions, including on Ukraine, Russia, Afghanistan, Iran and the renewal of the mandate of the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. This contributed to the HRC’s work on wider accountability, with a focus on Ukraine and Russia resulting in the creation of the Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine and the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Russia.

One of the mechanisms of the HRC is the universal periodic review (UPR), a process of peer-review of the human rights records of, and by, all UN member states. The UK strongly supports the UPR and has participated at every country’s review since the process began in 2008. The third cycle of the UPR ended in February, with every UN member state again having taken part.

The UK’s latest UPR took place in November, where 115 countries delivered statements and made 302 recommendations. The main issues covered were maintaining human rights protection, immigration and asylum, combatting discrimination and hate crime, the rights of women and girls, rights of people with disabilities, and ratification of UN human rights treaties.

In 2023, the UK will again participate actively in the UPR process and continue to make use of the last year of its current UN Human Rights Council term to highlight ongoing and emerging country priority issues, including Ukraine, Iran and Afghanistan. It will also use the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to highlight UK work to promote and protect human rights globally.[13]

The UN has noted that the UK government supported 135 of the 302 recommendations received during the November 2022 UPR process.[14]

On 1 December 2023, the UK and Danish governments made a joint statement to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s ministerial council on behalf of 45 states on the subject of human rights and fundamental freedoms.[15] The statement said that although “great strides” had been made in recent decades to advance human rights and fundamental freedoms, it had “become more evident than ever that the fight for freedom, gender equality, justice and democracy is far from over, and that their defence requires our ongoing vigilance and principled action”.

3. Read more

Members and staff can access these resources using a parliamentary login:

Cover image by FDR Presidential Library and Museum on Wikimedia Commons.


  1. UK Parliament, ‘Baroness Anelay of St Johns: Parliamentary career’ and ‘Baroness Anelay of St Johns: APPG officer roles’, accessed 6 December 2023; United Nations Association UK, ‘Directors’, accessed 6 December 2023; and Charity Commission, ‘Parliamentary Human Rights Trust: Trustees’, accessed 6 December 2023. Baroness Anelay previously held ministerial responsibilities at both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development before their merger and subsequently chaired the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee. See: UK Parliament, ‘Baroness Anelay of St Johns: Parliamentary career’, accessed 6 December 2023; and UK Government, ‘The Rt Hon Baroness Anelay of St Johns DBE’, accessed 6 December 2023. Return to text
  2. United Nations, ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, accessed 6 December 2023; and UN Human Rights, ‘What are human rights?: Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, accessed 6 December 2023. Return to text
  3. UN Dag Hammarskjöld Library, ‘UN human rights documentation’, accessed 6 December 2023; and Equality and Human Rights Commission, ‘What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?’, updated 19 November 2018. Return to text
  4. Guinness World Records, ‘Most translated document’, accessed 6 December 2023. Return to text
  5. UN Human Rights, ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights: English’, accessed 6 December 2023; and ‘Pick and share your preferred article’, accessed 6 December 2023. Return to text
  6. Council of Europe, ‘European Convention on Human Rights’, 2013. Return to text
  7. United Nations, ‘A/RES/217(III)’, 10 December 1948. Return to text
  8. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, ‘Human rights day’, accessed 6 December 2023. Return to text
  9. UN Human Rights, ‘Human rights 75 initiative’, accessed 6 December 2023. Return to text
  10. UN Human Rights, ‘Human rights day 2023’, accessed 6 December 2023. Return to text
  11. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, ‘UN HRC52: UK statement on Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, 4 April 2023. Return to text
  12. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, ‘Human rights and democracy: The 2022 Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office report’, 13 July 2023, CP 886, p 5. Return to text
  13. As above, pp 40–1. Return to text
  14. UN Human Rights Council, ‘Universal periodic review: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’, accessed 6 December 2023; and UN Human Rights, ‘United Kingdom’, accessed 6 December 2023. See also: Ministry of Justice, ‘UK’s response to 4th universal periodic review’, 30 March 2023. Return to text
  15. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, ‘Human rights and fundamental freedoms: Joint statement to the OSCE ministerial council 2023’, 1 December 2023. Return to text