On the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we might consider whether the idea of human rights with their firm assertions, their belief in the ‘rule of law,’ and their globalised vision remain relevant in the world. The idea that there are absolute standards has come under attack from both the left and the right. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, author of 'After Virtue', said, Natural rights and self evident truths proclaimed in the American declaration of independence are tantamount to belief in witches and unicorns. While from the left, in ‘Human Rights and Empire’, Costas Douzinas has called human rights the political philosophy of cosmopolitanism and argued that human rights now codify and ‘constitutionalise' the normative sources of Empire.
Those fighting the attempts by the Bush administration to tear up human rights prohibitions on torture would be surprised to see themselves as empire builders. The only weapons they had were the Constitutions of their countries and the human rights system, with its unequivocal rejection of torture. While recent developments in human rights may certainly be used to justify foreign military interventions on humanitarian grounds, a vast body of human rights law also limits the abusive power of the state and protects the freedom of the individual. But are these freedoms ones that are derived from ‘the West’ and therefore limited in their application? States affiliated to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) certainly seem to think so. In the 1980s and 90s Islamic states drafted the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, as an alternative declaration.
The idea that different peoples were endowed with separate rights would have seemed absurd in the middle of the twentieth century to those struggling against colonial oppression, or trying to build new nations. The barbarity unleashed on the world by a global war was certainly in the minds of delegates. But so too was the yearning to build a better world within the nation-state, as well as limiting foreign aggression and war. ‘It was imperative that the peoples of the world should recognize the existence of a code of civilized behavior which would apply not only in international relations but also in domestic affairs', said Begum Shaista Ikramullah, a member of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan and a delegate of the UN in 1948.
Susan Waltz, is one of the scholars who has done much to recover stories such as the role of Begum Ikramullah and others in the forgotten history of the drafting of the UDHR. Her work shows how mistaken many assumptions are about this foundational document. Eleanor Roosevelt is often seen as the single author of the Declaration, since she chaired the drafting Committee. Civil and political rights are seen as classical ‘Western' concerns, whilst social and economic rights are thought to have been advocated for by the Soviet bloc.
In fact, as Waltz shows, Roosevelt supplied neither the text nor the substantive ideas that shaped the UDHR. Ricardo Alfaro, former President of Panama, proposed the idea and first draft of such a Declaration, which was taken up by many others including public intellectuals such as HG Wells. While early drafts were worked on by Rene Cassin of France, along with many US lawyers, each clause was voted on by member states, and many suggestions came from drafters from small and newly de-colonised states. The Latin American states promoted social and economic rights, while the Soviet Union concentrated on racial discrimination - a convenient way of bashing the US, as well as colonial states.
The desire for emancipation of all, emphasising that rights applied to everyone everywhere, emerged as a major concern. Significant additions were made by newly de-colonised states regarding slavery, discrimination, the rights of women, and the right to national self determination.
Two of the most important drafters were Hansa Mehta of India, and Charles Malik of Lebanon, who was Committee Rapporteur. Hansa Mehta, an extraordinary activist and brave member of the Constituent Assembly in India, was responsible for the wording of the Article I ‘All human beings are equal in dignity and rights,’ arguing that if the word men was used, it would not be regarded as inclusive but rather taken to exclude women. She was the key figure who ensured gender equality in the document.
Yugoslavia proposed that human rights should apply to the peoples of non-self governing and trust territories. Carlos Romulo of the Philippines argued that full rights should be given to the colonies. Article 2, thereby ensures non-discrimination ( a standard clause that came to be adopted in all treaties) on the grounds of race, class property, social origin and so on; but it also ensures that subject peoples were also endowed with rights, ‘no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.’
Political differences were very evident. But the arguments were not necessarily divisions between blocs. There were political divisions among Muslims on religion and marriage, two very contentious areas. Saudi Arabia objected to Article 16 on the right to choice in marriage. Begum Ikramullah opposed the Saudi view, making a speech against child marriage. She accepted equal rights in marriage on the grounds that equal did not necessarily mean the same. Egypt’s Wahid Rafaat accepted the language on marriage, noting that marriage limitations based on race ( as in the US) were more shocking to his country than limitations based on religion or nationality. The clause on marriage, in short, was fought for by a range of opinion to form an egalitarian and adult basis for marriage which was absent then from most countries, whether eastern or western.
The clause on being able to exercise freedom of religion was supported by a number of Muslim delegates. The Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Zafrallah Khan, quoted the Qur'an ‘Let him who chooses believe, believe and him who chooses to disbelieve, disbelieve.’ He believed that the right to change religion was consistent with Islam. Moahammed Habib from India, supported the statement as consistent with the Constitution of India. However, Saudi Arabia objected to it, and eventually abstained from voting on the Declaration itself. No one voted against the Declaration, although Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the Soviet bloc abstained, with fifty countries voting for it.
Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile, member of the drafting sub-Committee, wrote: “I perceived clearly that I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing—which gave rise to the inalienable right to live free from want and oppression and to fully develop one’s personality. In the Great Hall…there was an atmosphere of genuine solidarity and brotherhood among men and women from all latitudes, the like of which I have not seen again in any international setting.”
(This article was first published in 2012. It is republished here on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10th December 1948).