The Impact of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the Study of History

There is perhaps no text with a broader impact on our lives than the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It is strange, therefore, that historians have paid so little attention to the UDHR. I argue that its potential impact on the study of history is profound. After asking whether the UDHR contains a general view of history, I address the consequences of the UDHR for the rights and duties of historians, and explain how it deals with their subjects of study. I demonstrate that the UDHR is a direct source of five important rights for historians: the rights to free expression and information, to meet and found associations, to intellectual property, to academic freedom, and to silence. It is also an indirect source of three duties for historians: the duties to produce expert knowledge about the past, to disseminate it, and to teach about it. I discuss the limits to, and conflicts among, these rights and duties. The UDHR also has an impact on historians' subjects of study: I argue that the UDHR applies to the living but not to the dead, and that, consequently, it is a compass for studying recent rather than remote historical injustice. Nevertheless, and although it is itself silent about historians' core duties to find and tell the truth, the UDHR firmly supports an emerging imprescriptible right to the truth, which in crucial respects is nothing less than a right to history. If the UDHR is a "Magna Carta of all men everywhere," it surely is one for all historians.