Who were the drafters, and what were they thinking while they wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (referred to in this article as the Universal Declaration) in 1948? The Universal Declaration has become an established part of our worldview, our intellectual infrastructure, our language of protest and our understanding of human dignity. However, the Universal Declaration was the work of very human hands and a product of the shattering impacts of World War II.
Drafters hoped that “human rights might become one of the cornerstones on which peace could eventually be based.” Given that their work would be adopted (or not) by the new United Nations assembly of state governments, the drafters also dared to hope that “as the Great Powers tie themselves down by their ratifications [of the Universal Declaration], the smaller nations which fear that the great may abuse their strength will acquire a sense of greater assurance.”
As The Lovepost launches its human rights theme, we invite readers to look back at the 1948 statement of Eleanor Roosevelt during the process of creating the Universal Declaration. Former First Lady of the United States, Roosevelt’s fearless vision and clarity still speak to human rights defenders, 75 years later.
The following statement was originally published in April 1948, in Foreign Affairs. It is reproduced here in full.
The real importance of the Human Rights Commission [replaced by the Human Rights Council in 2006] which was created by the Economic and Social Council lies in the fact that throughout the world there are many people who do not enjoy the basic rights which have come to be accepted in many other parts of the world as inherent rights of all individuals, without which no one can live in dignity and freedom.
At the first meeting of the Economic and Social Council in London, early in 1946, a Nuclear Commission was named to recommend a permanent setup for the full Commission of Human Rights, and to consider the work which it should first undertake. These first members of the Nuclear Commission were not chosen as representatives of governments, but as individuals. Naturally, however, each government was asked to concur in the nomination from that country. There were nine members nominated, but two of them were not able to come; and one or two nations insisted on nominating their own representatives. I was one of the members of the original Nuclear Commission, and when we met at Hunter College, I was elected chairman. The other members were: Mr. Fernanda de Husse, Belgium; Mr. K. C. Neogi, India; Professor René Cassin, France; Dr. C. L. Haai, China; Mr. Dusan Brkish, Jugoslavia; Mr. Borisov, U. S. S. R.
The representative from the U. S. S. R. [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, dissolved in 1991] was at first a young secretary from the Soviet Embassy. The other members of the Nuclear Commission did not realize that he was not the regular representative and was not empowered to vote. It was not until three days before the end of the meeting that the regular member, Mr. Borisov, arrived; and then we discovered that the representative of the U. S. S. R. who had been attending the meetings actually had had no right to vote, and such votes had to be removed from the record. The Commission was a little disturbed because a number of concessions had been made in order to obtain unanimity. Also, this change made it impossible for any decision to be unanimous, since the Soviet representative had been told that he could not commit his government by a vote on any subject and therefore registered no vote on the first recommendations for the Commission's organization and program of work.
The Commission made a number of recommendations. For instance, we agreed that persons should be chosen as individuals and not merely as representatives of governments. We agreed that there should be 18 members of the full Commission—an example of a minor point on which we had made concessions to the representative of the U. S. S. R., because originally the various members of the group had differed as to what the proper size of the Commission should be. I had been told that it made very little difference to the United States whether the Commission numbered 12 or 25, but it was felt the number should not be less than 12 because unavoidable absences might cut it down to too small a group; and it was felt also that the number should not be more than 25, for fear a large group might make our work very difficult to accomplish.
When I found out how many varieties of opinion there were, I made the suggestion as chairman that we might make the number 21, since we were apt to discuss some rather controversial subjects, and if there was a tie the chairman could cast the deciding vote. Most of the members agreed with this until we came to the representative of the U. S. S. R. He insisted that we should be 18, because our parent body, the Economic and Social Council, was made up of 18 members. As we did not feel that the size of the Commission was vitally important, and as he could not be induced to change, we agreed to recommend that the Commission consist of 18 members.
Among a number of other recommendations in our report we suggested that the first work to be undertaken was the writing of a Bill of Human Rights. Many of us thought that lack of standards for human rights the world over was one of the greatest causes of friction among the nations, and that recognition of human rights might become one of the cornerstones on which peace could eventually be based.
At its next meeting the Economic and Social Council received our report, which I presented, and it was then studied in detail and a number of changes were made. The members of the Commission were made government representatives, chosen by their governments. The 18 governments to be represented on the Commission were chosen by the Economic and Social Council. The United States was given a four-year appointment and my government nominated me as a member. At present the following are represented on the Commission: Australia, Belgium, Byelorussia, China, Chile, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Lebanon, Panama, the Philippines, Ukraine, the U. S. S. R., Jugoslavia, Uruguay, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The first session of the full Commission was called in January 1947. The officers chosen at that time, in addition to myself as permanent chairman, were Dr. Chang of China as vice-chairman and Dr. Charles Malik of Lebanon as rapporteur. In that first meeting we requested that the Division of Human Rights in the Secretariat get out a yearbook on human rights, and receive all petitions and acknowledge them. Since we were not a court, we could do nothing actually to solve the problems that these petitions presented, but we could tell the petitioners that once the Bill of Human Rights was written, they might find that their particular problems came under one of its provisions.
We considered some of the main points which should go into the drafting of the Bill of Human Rights, and we named a drafting committee which should present the first draft to the next meeting of the full Commission. This work was entrusted to the officers of the Commission, all of whom were available in or near Lake Success, and to Dr. John Humphrey, as head of the Division of Human Rights in the Secretariat. But when the Economic and Social Council received the report of this procedure considerable opposition to the appointment of so small a committee was expressed. As it had been understood in our meeting that the chairman of the committee was to call upon other members of the Commission for advice and assistance, I at once urged that the drafting committee be increased to eight members. This was done.
The drafting committee then met in June 1947. The delegate from the U. S. S. R., Mr. Koretsky, and the delegate from Byelorussia, neither of whom was authorized to vote on an unfinished document and both of whom lacked instructions from their governments, participated very little in the general discussion of the drafting committee, though they did agree to the principles that all men are equal and that men and women should have equal rights. The second meeting of the full Commission was called in Geneva, Switzerland, because some members felt strongly that the Human Rights Commission should hold a session in Europe. We were scheduled to meet on December 1, 1947, but as many of the members were delayed in arriving we actually met on December 2.
We mapped out our work very carefully. The position of the United States had been that it would be impossible in these initial meetings to do more than write a Declaration. If the Declaration were accepted by the General Assembly the next autumn, it would carry moral weight, but it would not carry any legal weight. Many of the smaller nations were strongly of the opinion that the oppressed peoples of the world and the minority groups would feel that they had been cruelly deceived if we did not write a Convention which would be presented for ratification, nation by nation, and which when accepted would be incorporated into law in the same way that treaties among nations are accepted and implemented. The Government of the United States had never, of course, been opposed to writing a Convention; it simply felt that the attempt would not be practical in these early stages. When it was found that feeling ran high on this subject, we immediately coöperated.
The Commission divided itself into three groups. The group to work on the Declaration consisted of the representatives of Byelorussia, France, Panama, the Philippines, the U. S. S. R. and the United States. The group to work on the Convention was made up of the representatives of Chile, China, Egypt, Lebanon, the United Kingdom and Jugoslavia [Yugoslavia]. The third group, to work on methods of implementation, which would later, of course, be included in the Convention, consisted of the representatives of Australia, India, Iran, Ukraine and Uruguay.
At the first meeting of the Commission, the representative from Australia made the suggestion that a Court of Human Rights be created. There had been a good deal of discussion of this idea in previous meetings. The general feeling was, however, that this action could not be taken under the [United Nations] Charter as it now stands and would raise the problem of revision of the Charter.
At the start, the United Kingdom had brought to the drafting committee a Declaration and a Convention which included suggestions for implementation. The U. S. S. R., while still not committing itself to any vote, as the Soviet Government still insisted that until a finished document was prepared they could not vote on it, nevertheless was willing to participate in the discussions which concerned the writing of a Declaration. Their representative took an active part, particularly in the discussion and formulation of the social and economic rights of the individual which are considered in some detail in the Declaration.
This was a hard-working committee, and I was extremely gratified both at the willingness of the members to put in long hours and at the general spirit of coöperation. In spite of the fact that a good many of the members must frequently have been very weary, there was always an atmosphere of good feeling and consideration for others, even when questions arose which called forth strong differences of opinion.
We finished our work at 11:30 P.M. on the night of December 17, and I think the documents which have now gone to all of the member governments in the United Nations are very creditable. A Declaration and a Convention were written. The group working on implementation made suggestions which, of course, must be more carefully considered before they are finally incorporated in the Convention. We now await the comments. These were requested by early April, so that the Human Rights Division of the Secretariat could go over them carefully and put them in shape for the drafting committee which will meet again at Lake Success on May 3, 1948.
The full Commission will meet at Lake Success on May 17, to give final consideration to this Bill of Human Rights, or Pact, as our Government prefers to have it called. The Economic and Social Council received the report of the documents written in Geneva, and sent them to the governments in January. They will now make their comments and suggestions. The final opportunity for consideration by the Economic and Social Council will come at its meeting next July, and the pact or charter which is finally adopted at that meeting will be presented to the General Assembly in the autumn of 1948.
Three Articles in the Declaration seem to me to be of vital importance. Article 15 provides that everyone has the right to a nationality; that is, all persons are entitled to the protection of some government, and those who are without it shall be protected by the United Nations. Article 16 says that individual freedom of thought and conscience, to hold and change beliefs, is an absolute and sacred right. Included in this Article is a declaration of the right to manifest these beliefs in the form of worship, observance, teaching and practice. Article 21 declares that everyone, without discrimination, has the right to take an effective part in the government of his country. This aims to give assurance that governments of states will bend and change according to the will of the people as shown in elections, which shall be periodic, free, fair and by secret ballot.
Some of the other important Articles are broad in scope. For instance, Article 23 says that every one has the right to work, and that the state has a duty to take steps within its power to ensure its residents an opportunity for useful work. Article 24 says that everyone has a right to receive pay commensurate with his ability and skill and may join trade unions to protect his interests.
Other Articles in the Declaration set forth rights such as the right to the preservation of health, which would give the state responsibility for health and safety measures; the right to social security, which makes it the duty of the state to provide measures for the security of the individual against the consequences of unemployment, disability, old age and other loss of livelihood beyond his control; the right to education, which should be free and compulsory, and the provision that higher education should be available to all without distinction as to race, sex, language, religion, social standing, financial means or political affiliation; the right to rest and leisure—that is, a limitation on hours of work and provisions for vacations with pay; the right to participate in the cultural life of the community, enjoy its arts and share in the benefits of science. Another Article asserts that education will be directed to the full physical, intellectual, moral and spiritual development of the human personality and to combatting hatred against other nations or racial or religious groups.
If the Declaration is accepted by the Assembly, it will mean that all the nations accepting it hope that the day will come when these rights are considered inherent rights belonging to every human being, but it will not mean that they have to change their laws immediately to make these rights possible.
On the other hand, as the Convention is ratified by one nation after another it will require that each ratifying nation change its laws where necessary, to make possible that every human being within its borders shall enjoy the rights set forth. The Convention, of course, covers primarily the civil liberties which many of the nations of the world have accepted as inherent rights of human beings, and it reaffirms a clause in the Charter of the United Nations which says that there shall be no discrimination among any human beings because of race, creed or color.
The most important articles of the Convention are subjects with which every American high school student is familiar. Article 5 makes it unlawful to deprive a person of life except as punishment for a crime provided by law. Article 6 outlaws physical mutilation. Article 7 forbids torture and cruel or inhuman punishment. Article 8 prohibits slavery and compulsory labor, with exceptions permitted as to the latter in the case of military service and emergency service in time of disaster such as flood or earthquake.
A provision which is new in an international constitutional sense, though not new in practice to Americans, is Article 11, which guarantees liberty of movement and a free choice of residence within a state, and a general freedom to every person in the world to leave any country, including his own. Article 20 makes all sections of the Convention applicable without distinction as to race, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, property status, or national or social origin; and Article 21 requires the states to forbid by law the advocacy of national, racial or religious hostility that constitutes incitement to violence. In general, every nation ratifying the Convention will have to make sure that within its jurisdiction these promised rights become realities, so it is the Convention which is of the greatest importance to the peoples throughout the world.
A possible stumbling block to general ratification of the Convention is the fact that some federal states, like the United States, operate constitutional systems in which the primary laws affecting individuals are adopted by the constituent states and are beyond the constitutional power of the federal government. The Convention provides, in Article 24, that in such cases these federal governments shall call to the attention of their constituent states, with a favorable recommendation, those Articles considered appropriate for action by them.
One of the questions that will come before the Human Rights Commission in May is whether all the Articles included in the Convention shall be submitted to the various nations for ratification in a single document, to be taken all in one gulp, so to speak, or shall be divided into separate conventions, in the thought that this procedure would avoid the rejection of the entire document because of objection to one or two Articles, as might happen in many cases. Of course, it is quite evident that in the future there will have to be many conventions on special subjects, and that the work of the Human Rights Commission should be directed for years to come to those subjects as they arise. A convention on the subject of nationality and stateless persons seems to be knocking at our doors for consideration almost immediately.
As I look back at the work thus far of our Human Rights Commission I realize that its importance is twofold.
In the first place, we have put into words some inherent rights. Beyond that, we have found that the conditions of our contemporary world require the enumeration of certain protections which the individual must have if he is to acquire a sense of security and dignity in his own person. The effect of this is frankly educational. Indeed, I like to think that the Declaration will help forward very largely the education of the peoples of the world.
It seems to me most important that the Declaration be accepted by all member nations, not because they will immediately live up to all of its provisions, but because they ought to support the standards toward which the nations must henceforward aim. Since the objectives have been clearly stated, men of good will everywhere will strive to attain them with more energy and, I trust, with better hope of success.
As the Convention is adhered to by one country after another, it will actually bring into being rights which are tangible and can be invoked before the law of the ratifying countries. Everywhere many people will feel more secure. And as the Great Powers tie themselves down by their ratifications, the smaller nations which fear that the great may abuse their strength will acquire a sense of greater assurance.
The work of the Commission has been of outstanding value in setting before men's eyes the ideals which they must strive to reach. Men cannot live by bread alone.