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How human rights went global

Attempts to assuage conflicts around the world using the language of human rights are sometimes met with rebuttals of their “Western” provenance. In fact the foundational Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged from the wisdom of the post-war international crowd.

Susan Waltz
9 April 2014

In one sense, the very existence of the Universal Declaration is extraordinary, because at the opening of the UN's first meeting in 1945 there were no plans to draft a human-rights declaration and nothing made that outcome inevitable.

During the war years, of course, the Allied powers had promoted human rights and fundamental freedoms, but the draft UN Charter negotiated by the US, the UK, the USSR and China at Dumbarton Oaks in 1944 made only a single reference to human rights. For Latin American states this was a disappointment, as human rights had been part of their own agenda since 1933 and they were keen to see the promotion of human rights included as part of the mandate of the new United Nations.

Latin American countries thus figured prominently among states that helped ensure that human rights would be part of the core work of the new international organisation. The Chilean lawyer Alvaro Alvarez had in fact drafted a text for a human-rights declaration and at the UN's inaugural meeting Panama's delegation formally urged its adoption. Representatives of the 50 convening states declined to take up the proposal on the spot but agreed to enhance the prominence of human rights in the UN Charter and charged the UN's Economic and Social Council to create a Commission on Human Rights, which in turn would have responsibility for making recommendations about an "international bill of rights".

Roosevelt’s apartment

In February 1946, the 18-member commission was appointed and the task of producing a declaration was assigned to its three officers, Eleanor Roosevelt (USA), Charles Malik (Lebanon) and Pengjun Zhang (China). The three met for the first time one Sunday in Roosevelt's New York apartment to discuss the project but reportedly spent much of the afternoon entangled in philosophical debates, with Malik promoting the idea of natural rights and Zhang arguing the merits of a Confucian approach.

Head of Rene Cassin

Rene Cassin: significant drafter. Picture / Wikimedia. Photographer unknown.To break the impasse, a larger drafting team was assembled. John Humphrey from Canada, director of the new UN Division of Human Rights, was asked to prepare the outline of an eventual declaration of human rights. In so doing, he drew heavily on materials at hand—including the Alvarez draft and a compilation of constitutions from around the world. The French legal scholar René Cassin drafted a preamble and organised the operative articles into a legal format suitable for discussion and debate.

The draft declaration went through multiple reviews before it was submitted to the General Assembly plenary for the historic vote of December 1948. A first complete draft was readied by the summer of 1947. Over the next year, the full Human Rights Commission and its drafting sub-committee debated and massaged the text, clarifying concepts and inserting important provisions along the way.

Gender equality

Delegates from China, the Philippines, the UK, Australia and the USSR, for example, worked with their counterparts from Latin America to negotiate and articulate a list of socio-economic rights to be included in the declaration, resulting in the establishment of the right to food, clothing, shelter and medical care as well as social security, education and decent working conditions. Delegates from India, the Dominican Republic and Denmark were ardent defenders of gender equality and succeeded in replacing the phrase "all men" with "all human beings." The Soviets and their allies in the Communist bloc meanwhile ensured that phrases like "no one" and "everyone" were inserted into the text of nearly every article, stamping the declaration with the language of non-discrimination. And the Egyptian delegate supplied phrasing for the preamble that most directly and unequivocally asserted the declaration's universality, mandating that rights were to be upheld everywhere, "both among the peoples of the Members States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction".

When the commission concluded its work in the summer of 1948, the draft was forwarded for formal review to the Third Committee of the General Assembly. From late September to early December, accredited delegates to the committee (from 56 states) scrutinised the draft text, considering more than 150 amendments and taking votes article by article. Participation was widespread, with 40 states offering commentary in the opening session. Malik presided over all the sessions, using a stopwatch to keep the debate manageable while providing access to all participants.

Delegates discussed the structure of the draft declaration as well as its contents, and the text of each article was carefully examined with an eye to future interpretation. Arguing that slavery needed to be addressed in all of its forms, for example, Poland's delegate pointed to the problem of human trafficking. The representative from the Philippines argued convincingly that torture could not be attributed to cultural differences, in the face of a suggestion that allowances might be made for cultural practices. Representatives from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia engaged in a debate about child marriage, with the Pakistani delegate refusing to accept a change to the wording from "full age" to "legal marriageable age". She successfully argued that the original wording more clearly conveyed the purpose of the article—to prevent child marriages and non-consensual marriages—and the Third Committee ultimately decided to retain the wording "full age".

Joint ownership

During the negotiations, cold-war tensions were ubiquitous, anti-colonial sentiments were rife and many delegates argued unabashedly for provisions tailored to their parochial concerns. Nevertheless, the negotiations moved forward. At times, the political undercurrents threatened the entire process and led some to despair but, in the end, many acknowledged that the arduous process of negotiation had given a sense of joint ownership.

On December 7th 1948, the declaration's basic text was approved in the Third Committee and two days later it was taken up by the General Assembly in plenary session for its final vote. As Emile Saint Lot (Haiti) said to the plenary in his capacity as committee rapporteur,

"The United Nations representatives had sought out, among old-established or recent political, economic, social and cultural rights, formulas which might be acceptable to men from the four corners of the world. The text of the draft declaration represented a kind of common denominator for those various ideas. It was perhaps not perfect, but it was the greatest effort yet made by mankind to give society new legal and moral foundations."

After a final review of the text and votes on several more amendments, the declaration was approved unopposed on December 10th. Although eight countries abstained, including South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Soviet bloc states, these positions were not definitive. Eighteen years later, the two human-rights covenants, on civil and political and economic and social rights, were approved with the unanimous support of a greatly expanded UN membership.

In presenting the draft Universal Declaration of Human Rights for its final vote, Malik summed up the process and underscored its significance: "Thousands of minds and hands have helped in its formation. Every member of the United Nations has solemnly pledged itself to achieve respect for and observance of human rights. But precisely what these rights are we were never told before, either in the charter or in any other national instrument. This is the first time the principles of human rights and fundamental freedoms are spelled out authoritatively and in precise detail. I now know what my government pledged itself to promote, achieve and observe."

As the current generation of diplomats, NGO representatives and UN staff look to build on this proud legacy and construct a Human Rights Council that can effectively safeguard the rights so painstakingly discussed and set down between 1946 and 1948, it is important to recall and be inspired by those momentous days. In particular, it is important to remember that the Universal Declaration was crafted not by one or two pairs of hands, and certainly not solely by Western hands, but is rather the product a global co-operative effort and is thus the inheritance of all people everywhere.

As the president of the General Assembly, His Excellency John Ashe, said at the opening of the council's 25th session, "In these troubled times, let us take a moment to remember that a mere three years after the founding of the United Nations, our assembly of nations stood together to reaffirm their faith in universal human rights as a main pillar of the organisation, and that the Universal Declaration transformed into reality, for many generations and many more that are still to come, the bold and audacious premise that all people—regardless of circumstance—are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

This article was originally published by the Universal Rights Group, a Geneva-based human-rights think tank which aims to strengthen international human-rights policy through research, analysis and providing a platform for dialogue. To subscribe to the URG Insights series, in which this article appeared, please visit the URG website

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