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Human rights and medical education

BMJ 1997; 315 doi: (Published 29 November 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:1390

Why every medical student should learn the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

  1. Jennifer Leaning (, Senior research fellow
  1. a Harvard Centre for Population and Development Studies, Cambridge, MA 02140, USA

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enters its 50th anniversary year in 1998. Around the world efforts are under way to celebrate this event and accelerate efforts to disseminate the contents of the declaration. These efforts are undertaken in recognition that progress has been at best uneven since that early morning of 10 December 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly formally adopted this document and thereby sought to enshrine in world consciousness a commitment to secure basic human rights around the world.

    In 1948 there were 58 member nations of the UN; there are now 185. For this world community the declaration has acquired the status of international law and all governments can be held to its principles. Many other international treaties and charters have incorporated the language of the declaration or referred to it; and many national governments have included its language and principles in their constitutions.1

    The declaration encompasses civil and political rights of individuals (in the first 21 articles); economic and social rights, including to health care (articles 22-27); and reciprocal obligations and constraints conferred by participation in a community (articles 28-30) (see p 1455).

    There are several histories of this document which are relevant to those interested in the struggle to persuade human beings to find common ground and push off to higher reaches from it. Yet for the medical community in general, and for the subset who are medical students, the history is less crucial than is the fact of what this document now has become, 50 years from its making.

    With astonishing durability it has withstood the test of time and has become the minimum consensus statement …

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