In October 2005, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) adopted the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. This was the culmination of nearly 2 years of deliberations and negotiations. As a non-binding instrument, the declaration must be incorporated by UNESCO’s member states into their national laws, regulations or policies in order to take effect. Based on documentary evidence and data from interviews, this paper compares the declaration’s universal principles with national bioethics guidelines and practice in Kenya and South Africa. It concentrates on areas of particular relevance to developing countries, such as protection of vulnerable persons and social responsibility. The comparison demonstrates the need for universal principles to be contextualised before they can be applied in a meaningful sense at national level. The paper also assesses the ‘added value’ of the declaration in terms of biomedical research ethics, given that there are already well-established international instruments on bioethics, namely the World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki and the CIOMS (Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences) guidelines on biomedical research. It may be that the added value lies as much in the follow-up capacity building activities being initiated by UNESCO as in the document itself.