Human Rights Declaration: a glorious document formulated in the greatest hypocrisy


By Otto Spijkers


4269.jpgToday is human rights day: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948, has turned 59 today. The adoption of this declaration in 1948 was one of the reasons, for me in fact the most important, to name our blog ‘1948’. To celebrate this anniversary, I will look briefly at the drafting of that Declaration. The authoritative account of the drafting history of that declaration is ‘The Universal Declaration of Human Rights : origins, drafting, and intent’, written by Johannes Morsink, a Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Political Science at Drew University, who describes himself as ‘a high school drop out, who emigrated from Holland to Canada and from there to the United States in search of adventure and a new start.’ The story of the drafting of the Declaration begins at the San Francisco Conference, where the United Nations Charter was drafted in 1945 (for an interesting overview of human rights related debates at San Francisco, see here). Against the wishes of the major powers (the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and China), a large group of smaller nations, primarily from Latin-America, attempted to inject human rights language into the UN Charter. Two states even proposed to annex a ‘Bill of Rights’ to the United Nations Charter, and actually came up with a first draft of such a Bill: Panama’s Declaration of Essential Human Rights and Cuba’s Declaration of the International Rights and Duties of the Individual. Although the two nations were unsuccessful at San Francisco, it was Panama’s proposal that was the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite US resistance to the idea of annexing a Bill of Rights, Truman said at the end of the San Francisco Conference that: truman.jpg

Under [the Charter] we have good reason to expect an international bill of rights, acceptable to all the nations involved. That bill of rights will be as much a part of international life as our own Bill of Rights is a part of our Constitution. The Charter is dedicated to the achievement and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Unless we can attain those objectives for all men and women everywhere – without regard to race, language, or religion – we cannot have permanent peace and security in the world.

The Declaration was drafted between 1946-1948 by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (replaced in 2006 by the Human Rights Council), then chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt and ‘vice-chaired’ by René Cassin from France. Although Cassin received the Nobel Peace Prize basically for writing the Declaration, it was actually the work of many people, and to refer to Roosevelt and Cassin as the two individuals responsible for the declaration is not only factually incorrect, it is also dangerous because it challenges the universal nature of that declaration. This is even more so when the nationality of these two individuals is ‘exploited’ to refer to the UN’s declaration as a global copy of the famous declarations of those two nations. This is what the Nobel Committee said when offering the Prize to Cassin:

Through one of history’s whims it was a representative of France, Réne Cassin, and a representative of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, who became the architects of the Declaration of Human Rights. Over a hundred years before, both of these nations had adopted declarations guaranteeing the basic rights of man. I am referring to the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789.

The truth about the declaration’s origins is much more ‘universal’ than this remark suggests. In December 1948, the General Assembly adopted the declaration, with 8 abstentions and no dissenting votes. Richard Jolly recently said that the declaration was a glorious document but it was formulated in the greatest hypocrisy. This is true: all nations that adopted the declaration were probably violating the norms contained in that declaration at the time they adopted it. Western Europe had its colonies, and Eastern Europe had its totalitarianism. In the US, the lives of those belonging to certain minorities was made impossible. States did not hesitate, before the Declaration was adopted, to expose the skeletons in other states’ closets, in an attempt to move attention away from their own skeleton in their own closet. Apart from this mud-throwing contest, states also philosophized a bit about human rights. A few states expressed their opinion as to where human rights come from. For example, referring to the source of those rights, Mr. van Roijen (representative of the Netherlands) regretted that man’s divine origin and immortal destiny had not been mentioned in the declaration, for the fount of those rights was the Supreme Being, who laid a great responsibility on those who claimed them. Others, e.g. New Zealand, did not believe human rights were God-given: Human rights were rooted in the nature of man himself as well as in the structure and needs of the modern world. The Soviet Union (abstained when the Declaration was adopted) preferred to see human rights as a legal construct. In fact, according to the Soviet Union, human rights meant nothing unless they were guaranteed and protected by the State; otherwise they became a mere abstraction, an empty illusion easily created but just as easily dispelled. Then there was also the debate between the USA and the Soviets on the relationship between state and individual. According to the US, the declaration was based on the conviction that man must have freedom in order to develop his personality to the full, and have his dignity respected. Yugoslavia objected to this view, and remarked that the declaration was, in certain respects, not based on reality, because it described man as an isolated individual and overlooked the fact that he was also a member of a community. The Indian representative believed rights and duties were two sides of the same coin; as Mahatma Gandhi had said, all rights were born of obligations, and no man could claim the right to live unless he fulfilled his duties as a citizen of the world. What are human rights? What kind of portrayal of man(kind) is at their foundation? Is that portrayal universally shared, and if not, should it be? Although all these questions have been discussed for as long as the Universal Declaration has been with us, and long before that, these debates have not been settled (and probably never will be). Morsink’s book, referred to at the beginning of this post, starts as follows:

It is inevitable that a document like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should raise questions about the possibility of there being universal values. This questioning started before the document was even finished, has continued to this day, and will probably never end.

This never-ending character of the discussion on the origins and universality of human rights is essentially shared by all philosophical debates, and is no reason to reject the idea of universality, or to claim that there is no foundation for these rights. In any case, these questions continue to provide interesting food for thought. See, for example, on the fascinating topic of human duties, the following post at Opinio Juris. – Otto

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2 thoughts on “Human Rights Declaration: a glorious document formulated in the greatest hypocrisy

  1. Hi Nick,

    Thanks for your very interesting comments. I first like to respond to this reliance on a ‘Supreme Being’. I agree that a reference to this being should never have made it in the declaration, and fortunately it did not. I find it quite embarrassing to read that it was fellow-Christian countries that needed to convince the Netherlands – the country where two of the most famous enlightenment philosophers have written some of their major work (Spinoza and Descartes) – not to put its suggestion to a vote. That would have been ridiculous, don’t you think, to decide by majority vote whether human rights are God-given or not. But on the other hand, religion does seem to have been a major inspiration for human rights. The theme of the Oxford Amnesty Lectures for 2008 is rights and religion, and I look forward to these lectures, because I think many interesting things can be said about this link. See:

    – Otto

  2. I like your take on human rights – more of a springboard for discussion than anything “real” or settled. The debate reminds me of the debate over the Canadian Charter of Rights, where the conservatives tried to put in language protecting the right to “enjoy one’s property” but the left-wing New Democratic Party didn’t want any language about property rights (unless other economic rights were also recognized). At its most fundamental level, this seems like a debate about “negative” versus “positive” freedom. People on the right want negative freedom – freedom from external obligations or compulsion by the state. Thus private property rights are fundamental for them. People on the left want positive freedom – giving people the capacity do things that they value. Thus things like the right to education, healthcare, the right to a job, food, security, etc. are what they value, what are sometimes called “economic rights.” These things obviously come into tension because one of them benefits from minimal state involvement while the other requires substantial intervention.

    Of course I tend to agree with the Soviet view that human rights are essentially meaningless except when a state attempts to enforce and protect them, but I see the value in attempting to articulate a common set of ideals even if there is still substantial disagreement on them (even in a country as homogeneous as Canada). After all, this is the only language with which to address other countries with whose legal codes and constitutional rights we disagree – we have to argue that individuals have certain rights that trump national laws, even if those laws are imposed by democratic regimes.

    The idea that human rights stem from a supreme being is a little ridiculous, though – if you thought that the signers of the declaration were being hypocrites, try immersing yourself in the contradictions of religious texts. Even if there were a supreme being who had articulated those rights, I don’t know how or where we would find a universal set we could agree on.

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