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75 Years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “It was the beginning of a new era”

Matthias Jestaedt, Jörn Leonhard and Sitta von Reden on the potential of constitutions between transformation and stability

Freiburg, Dec 04, 2023


On 10 December 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For the first time in history, this document formulated the rights of the individual. “We had lived in political organisations for two and a half thousand years without human rights being recognised as such,” says Prof. Dr Sitta von Reden, Chair of Ancient History. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "the concept of dignity appears in this pronounced form for the first time ever,” says Prof. Dr Jörn Leonhard, Chair of Modern and Contemporary History. Legal scholar Prof. Dr Matthias Jestaedt also attests to the document: “This was the beginning of a whole new era.” Jestaedt, Leonhard and von Reden conduct research on constitutions and constitutional practices at the University of Freiburg. The Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 makes the complexity of this endeavour tangible because the declaration itself was not a constitution in the classical sense.

Declaration of Human Rights is incorporated into constitutions

"The Declaration of Human Rights is not legally binding," says Jestaedt, "but the individual rights are formulated as if they were." The new focus on the individual has since had a direct impact on many constitutions of the 20th and 21st centuries. The influence is particularly clear in the German Constitution. "Human dignity is central to the Constitution and is protected by the Federal Constitutional Court as one of the strongest human rights courts," says Jestaedt. He is currently observing a veritable "race to the top" for the best protection of human rights between national constitutional courts in Europe, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In this way, the Declaration of Human Rights, despite its own legal non-binding nature, has become the foundation of a unique level of fundamental rights in Europe.

Video interview with Matthias Jestaedt

Historicity and the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous

From a historical perspective, there are many precursors to the formulation of fundamental rights, says Leonhard. After the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, for example, the right to emigrate for reasons of religion was formulated for the first time. Leonhard cites the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) and the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) as further antecedents. However, the explicit focus on human dignity was something fundamentally new and should be understood as a “direct reaction to the epochal and civilisational rupture of the 1930s and 1940s because totalitarianism had disenfranchised the individual like hardly ever before and left them at the mercy of unrestrained violence.”

Such contexts should not be used to infer linearity in the historical development of constitutions, adds von Reden. Rather, there is a “simultaneity of the non-simultaneous” alongside recourse to older eras. Similar contexts in different settings could lead to comparable solutions. “A more complex understanding of temporality is essential in order to understand the development of constitutions and to view them globally.”


Video interview with Sitta von Reden

Constitutions between stability and change

In the present day, with its enormous global challenges, many hopes are pinned on constitutions and constitutional courts. This can be seen, for example, in the Federal Constitutional Court’s decision on German climate protection in 2021, notes Jestaedt. At the same time, constitutions are being scrutinised to a much greater extent today. “We shouldn’t be under the illusion that the constitution will sort things out.” In Poland, for example, a new government faces the question of the extent to which the influence of the previous governing party PiS on the Constitutional Court can be reversed.

Current developments in particular document the fact that constitutions and international declarations cannot be understood solely from a legal perspective. Jestaedt, Leonhard, von Reden and their co-researchers therefore argue in favour of viewing the constitution as a practice. “The concept of practice helps to understand the complex structure of norms not only as what happens in court,” says Leonhard, “but also to understand how the handling of the overarching order of a constitution has developed in social processes, what expectations or disappointments were associated with it, how constitutions and constitutionality are dealt with, how they are instrumentalised or communicated. How and why such processes have changed over eras from antiquity to the present day and how they can be differentiated from a global perspective is at the centre of our interdisciplinary research.”


Video interview with Jörn Leonhard


Matthias Jestaedt, Jörn Leonhard and Sitta von Reden are available for media interviews.

Together, they are spokespersons for the Cluster of Excellence initiative "Constitution as Practice in Times of Transformation" (ConTrans). For more information about it and the Freiburg Excellence Strategy as a whole.

Matthias Jestaedt

Chair of Public Law and Legal Theory 
University of Freiburg

Tel: +49 761 203-97800


Jörn Leonhard

Chair of Modern and Contemporary Western European History 
University of Freiburg

Tel: +49 761 203-3424

Sitta von Reden

Chair of Ancient History
University of Freiburg

Tel: +49 761 203-3390




University and Science Communications
University of Freiburg
Tel.: +49 761 203 4302