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Human Rights of the Family (Part 1): The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 

10 December 2023 marked the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One provision declares that “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” How did this come about?

On 10 December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It was a momentous occasion, proclaiming “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” in the wake of the horrors of the Second World War. 

A total of 48 UN member states voted in favour, while 8 states abstained. None voted against the Declaration. 

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the UDHR. Though non-binding in international law, the Declaration continues to speak with profound moral force even today.  

For example, in 2021, Singapore’s Ambassador Umej Bhatia affirmed before the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council the country’s “respect” for “the fundamental human rights enshrined in [Singapore’s] Constitution and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. 

Family as the natural and fundamental unit

While it is commonplace to think of human rights as belonging to individuals, it is noteworthy that the Declaration also addresses group rights.  

One of these is Article 16(3) concerning the family, which states: “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”  

This provision is situated within Article 16 of the UDHR, which addresses marriage and family. Other parts of the Article address matters including the rights of men and women of full age to marry and found a family, and their equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.  

The origin of Article 16(3) reveals a range of insights into the philosophy behind this fascinating provision concerning the family unit. 

The Original Proposal  

The original version of what ultimately became Article 16(3) was proposed by Dr Charles Malik, the representative from Lebanon. His proposal originally read, “The family deriving from marriage is the natural and fundamental group unit of society. It is endowed by the Creator with Inalienable rights antecedent to all positive law and as such shall be protected by the State and Society.”  

In Malik’s view, “society was not composed of individuals, but of groups, of which the family was the first and most important unit”. He added that “in the family circle the fundamental human freedoms and rights were originally nurtured.”  

The reason why he used the word “Creator” was because he believed that “the family did not create itself”. He also explained that the family had “inalienable rights”, which had not been conferred upon it by “the caprice of man”.  

The Soviet representative Alexander E. Bogomolov opposed the proposal, citing the “varied forms of marriage and family life” in the world, and adding that “many people did not believe in God”. He stressed that the Declaration “was meant for mankind as a whole, whether believers or unbelievers”. 

Only the first sentence of Dr Malik’s proposal was adopted. The second sentence was rejected by the drafting committee, even as Dr Malik expressed hope that it would be further considered again. 

Compromise and Conclusion  

Questions later arose as to whether protection would be withheld to children born out of wedlock because of the reference to “marriage”. Dr Malik and his Belgian counterpart did not think so. Dr Malik said that “the family usually derived from marriage”, while “illegitimate births were the exception”.  

There were others, such as the representatives from Egypt, Chile and India, who had different views. Mrs Hansa Jivraj Mehta from India opined that the Declaration should give no definition of the family, and further that “family, whether deriving from marriage or not, was entitled to protection”.  

An acceptable compromise was proposed by the French delegate René Cassin, that “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection.”  

The last phrase referring to protection “by society and the State” was added because the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics considered it necessary to specify “by what means that protection [of the family] would be ensured”. The French delegate supported the proposal, adding that protection should be provided “not only by public bodies but also by private or religious institutions, wherever they existed.”  

As such, Article 16(3) came to its current form as contained in the UDHR.  

This language has been fully replicated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and its concepts have been adapted in other human rights treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The latter treaty declares in its preamble that the family is “the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children”. 

Unlike the UDHR, these human rights treaties are legally binding under international law on countries which accede to it. Singapore is not a party to the ICCPR, but acceded to the CRC in October 1995

How is this Relevant Today?  

Now that the UDHR has affirmed the “family” as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society”, which is “entitled to protection by society and the State”, what does this mean for us here in Singapore? 

In the next article, we will explore how this principle remains relevant even in 21st century Singapore, as the Government has consistently emphasised the value of the family as “the basic building block” of society here.  

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