December 8, 2018 - No. 43

70th Anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Inalienable Rights Which Everyone Is Inherently Entitled to as Human Beings

Differing Perspectives on Human Rights During
Drafting of Universal Declaration

Perspective of the Soviet Delegation on
Draft Covenant on Human Rights

Canada's Less than Honourable Role
Text of Universal Declaration of Human Rights

70th Anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Inalienable Rights Which Everyone Is
Inherently Entitled to as Human Beings

International Human Rights Day is observed every year on December 10, the date on which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, seventy years ago in 1948. According to its Preamble, the Declaration, which contains thirty articles, was to constitute a "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction."[1]

UN General Assembly session in Paris, December 10, 1948, adopts Universal Declaration
of Human Rights.

Paying tribute to the Declaration on its 70th anniversary, the UN describes it as "a milestone document that proclaimed the inalienable rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being -- regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status," and one that "establishes the equal dignity and worth of every person." One of the most translated documents in the world, it is available in more than 500 languages.

The Declaration has the character of a non-binding pronouncement. It is up to UN member states that accede to it to bring their domestic law into compliance with its principles for them to assume any legal weight.

When it was adopted, the Declaration was accompanied by a General Assembly resolution that called its adoption "a historic act destined to consolidate world peace through the contribution of the United Nations towards the liberation of individuals from the unjustified oppression and constraint to which they are too often subjected."

The resolution called for the Declaration's dissemination "among all peoples around the world" and for governments to use every means within their power to solemnly publicize it and cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories; for the Secretary General to have it widely disseminated and to that end published and distributed not only in official languages but using every means at his disposal in all languages possible; and for specialized agencies and NGOs to do their utmost to bring this declaration to the attention of their members.

Finally a resolution was also attached calling for the Economic and Social Council of the General Assembly to ask the Commission on Human Rights to continue to give priority in its work for the preparation of a draft covenant on Human Rights and measures for its implementation -- next steps in the creation of the International Bill of Human Rights to be comprised of the Declaration as well as a binding covenant and measures for its implementation.

Work on Covenants to Accompany the Declaration

In the course of this work which ended up stretching out over no less than 18 years, with negotiations taking place when the Cold War was in full swing, and during the upsurge of anti-colonial wars and struggles for national liberation, including in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and many countries in Africa, there remained sharp differences over most of the same issues on which agreement could not be reached during the drafting of the Declaration. This eventually led to the decision to draft two separate covenants -- one dealing with civil and political rights, the other with economic, social and cultural rights which were to contain as many similar provisions as possible for implementation, and be opened for signature simultaneously.

It was eventually agreed as well that each covenant would contain an article on the right of all peoples to self-determination which was not included in the 1948 Declaration despite the best efforts of Yugoslavia, which had proposed an article to that effect, and other countries which fought for it. The proposed article read:

The States Parties to the present Covenant, including those having responsibility for the administration of Non-Self-Governing and Trust Territories, shall promote the realization of the right of self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations.

Drafts of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights were presented to the General Assembly for discussion in 1954 but were only adopted twelve years later in 1966. Article 1 of each Covenant states that the right to self-determination is universal and calls upon States to promote the realization of that right and to respect it. The article provides that all peoples have the right of self-determination and adds that "By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development." It took almost another ten years for enough UN member states (35) to sign on to them for the covenants to finally enter into force.[2]

As of September 2018, 169 countries had acceded to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. A further four countries, including the United States have signed, but not ratified it.

Together, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the two Covenants are said to be the foundational texts in the contemporary international system of human rights with the rights contained in the Declaration and the two Covenants further elaborated in such legal documents as the International Convention against Torture; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which declares dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred as being punishable by law; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, covering measures to be taken for eliminating discrimination against women in political and public life, education, employment, health, marriage and family; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which lays down guarantees in terms of the child's human rights.


1. Today, 70 years after the adoption of the original UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there are seven major UN human rights treaties:

1. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
2. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
3. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
4. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
5. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
6. Convention on the Rights of the Child
7. International Convention on Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families

2. To see the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, click here. To see the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, click here.

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Differing Perspectives on Human Rights During Drafting of Universal Declaration

The 1945 San Francisco Conference led to the founding of the United Nations and adoption of its Charter from the ashes of World War II. The hope was to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, ... reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom." There a "Declaration on the Essential Rights of Man" was proposed.

The Preparatory Commission of the UN, which met immediately after the San Francisco Conference, recommended that the Economic and Social Council establish a commission for the promotion of human rights. The Commission on Human Rights, convened for the first time on January 27, 1947 at Lake Success, New York was comprised of representatives of eighteen UN member states: Australia, Belgium, Byelorussia, Chile, China, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Lebanon, Panama, Philippines, Ukraine, USSR, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay and Yugoslavia. Charles Malik, the delegate from Lebanon, served as its rapporteur and John Humphrey, a Canadian professor of international law and director of the UN Secretariat's Division for Human Rights, served as secretary. Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of U.S. wartime president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and a delegate to the UN for her country, was elected chair of the Commission.

Three separate groups were formed to work simultaneously on drafting a declaration, a covenant (a document that, unlike a declaration, would become legally binding on the nations that ratified it), and methods of implementation.

A committee composed of eight persons, from Australia, Chile, China, France, Lebanon, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom and the United States, was charged with drafting the Declaration. It met over the course of two years. When the committee completed its work in June 1948, the text it settled on was sent to the Social, Cultural, and Humanitarian Committee of the General Assembly, commonly referred to as the Third Committee, for its consideration. At its meetings between September 28 and December 9, 1948, in which all UN member states were entitled to participate, the Third Committee subjected the Declaration to intense scrutiny, debating every article and voting well over a thousand times on different amendments and proposals. As had already occurred in the drafting committee, sharp differences in the perspective on human rights and how they could be realized surfaced, mainly between republics of the Soviet Union and the newly formed people's democracies on the one hand, and the U.S. and old colonial powers of Europe and those under their influence, on the other.

Those who considered themselves part of the "western" bloc tended to give short shrift to economic and social rights, and collective rights generally, saying there was no obligation for states to guarantee these rights. Instead they concentrated on individual rights and freedoms, conceived often as protection from the state. The socialist countries saw the state as being duty-bound to create the conditions for the full enjoyment of social, economic and cultural as well as civil and political rights. Eleanor Roosevelt commented about one of the many amendments proposed by the Soviet delegation to this effect that she could not support it since to do so would mean the entire character of the Declaration would be changed. It was clear that the U.S. had put itself in the position of dictating that the document must be aspirational only -- and as revealed in documents published later, a propaganda tool for use against the Soviet Union, which it sought to portray as a violator of human rights. This all took place as NATO was in the process of being founded.

Issues of Contention

Reports in the 1948-49 UN Yearbook reveal various issues of contention in the plenary, and also in the committee, between those countries that sought to concretely protect and enshrine human rights, and those who merely sought to have an aspirational document.[1]

The representative of Poland "thought that the application of those articles dealing with the right of asylum, the freedom of opinion and expression, and the granting of freedom of assembly and association should be limited so that fascists would not be able to profit by those provisions in order to overthrow democracy. He submitted that the adoption of the Declaration should not entail any interference in the domestic jurisdiction of sovereign States. He also felt that there were several omissions in the draft, such as the omission of the right of nations to use their own language and to develop their own culture."

"The representative of the USSR considered that the draft Declaration did not satisfy the three conditions which were ... indispensable to the completion of the Declaration, namely: a guarantee of basic freedoms for all, with due regard to the national sovereignty of States; a guarantee that human rights could be exercised with due regard to the particular economic, social and national circumstances prevailing in each country; and a definition of the duties of citizens to their country, their people and their State. He regretted that fascism was nowhere condemned in the draft. He declared that the rights specified in the draft were illusory as they lacked effective guarantees."

As well, the representative of the USSR "considered that the article dealing with the freedom to disseminate ideas did not solve the problem of freedom of expression, as the diffusion of dangerous ideas, such as warmongering and fascist ideas, should be prevented. That same article, he submitted, made no provision for the free dissemination of just and lofty ideas. If freedom of expression was to be effective, the workers, he argued, must have the means of voicing their opinions, and for that they must have at their disposal printing presses and newspapers. The right to street demonstrations, he said, should be guaranteed." That argument was rejected by Eleanor Roosevelt who said opinions of newspaper owners were confined to the editorial pages, and could be easily discerned and that furthermore, in the U.S. it was the people who controlled the government and the press, so there was no problem!

The Soviet representative also "declared that it was necessary to make certain that scientific research would not be used for war purposes which would obviously hinder progress. He drew the Assembly's attention to a defect in the Declaration which he considered to be fundamental: the absence of provisions guaranteeing the rights of national minorities [including the preservation of native languages and cultures]. He also regretted the failure of the Declaration to mention the sovereign rights of States.

"He submitted a draft resolution (A/785/Rev.2) recommending that the General Assembly postpone adoption of the Declaration until its fourth regular session. The representatives of the Byelorussian SSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Ukrainian SSR and Yugoslavia supported the Soviet draft resolution.

"The representative of the Ukrainian SSR stated that the Declaration contained a series of rights which could not be exercised, in view of the existing conditions and the economic structure of a great number of countries. Several elementary democratic rights which could be realized even in a capitalist society had been deliberately omitted. Before the right to work, to rest and to education could be put into effect, he submitted, it was necessary to alter drastically the economic system of private enterprise. He said that there could be true equality among men only under an economic system which guaranteed to everyone equal conditions and opportunities for the development of his own potentialities, and that was not the equality mentioned in the Declaration. In making his case he spoke to "the absurd theory current among colonial powers that there were superior and inferior races," saying it was reminiscent of the defeated nazi theory and must he eradicated, giving the example of South Africa, but saying it was not alone in this regard.

"The Declaration, maintained the representative of Czechoslovakia, was not imbued with revolutionary spirit; it was neither bold nor modern. The abolition of the death sentence in peace time was not agreed to; nor were 'fascism' and 'aggression' denounced publicly and formally. The Declaration, he observed, took no account of the practical aspects of the question of the right to work; it simply expressed lofty ideals, making no provision for their implementation in the difficult daily life of the workers. He stressed the fact that there was no point in proclaiming the right to leisure, for example, if some men had no means of exercising that right.

"According to the representative of the Byelorussian SSR, the Declaration was merely a proclamation of human rights, and it contained no guarantee of the rights it proclaimed. The right to national culture and democracy's struggle against fascism and nazism were not mentioned."

This stand of the USSR and other socialist countries on the need to prevent the propagation of fascist and warmongering ideas was opposed by the U.S., Britain and Canada who said this was not possible because there was no common understanding about what terms like "fascism" and "democratic system" entailed.

"The Declaration stated only traditional freedoms and rights of the old liberal school, the representative of Poland asserted. It failed to mention that the counterpart of those rights was the duty of the individual towards his neighbours, his family, his group and his nation. It completely ignored the right of every person to speak his own language and to have the protection of his national culture ensured. He stated that the Declaration, in reality, represented a step backward if compared with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which had been produced during the French Revolution; if compared with the Communist Manifesto, which had declared human rights as binding and necessary a hundred years ago; and if compared with the principles which had inspired the October Revolution.

"The representative of Yugoslavia felt that the principles of human rights set out in the Declaration lagged behind the social progress achieved in modern times; and that they did not grant full juridical and social protection to man. He considered that the radical change in social conditions emphasized the necessity of widening the traditional categories of human rights -- which generally included political and civil rights -- and of establishing a system of social rights, including the collective ones for certain communities. He regarded the Declaration as an instrument of international codification rather than as an instrument which opened a new and bright future for the individual in the vast field of social rights."

The representative of the USSR "stated that the Declaration was directed against national sovereignty and was therefore entirely inconsistent with the principles of the United Nations. The independence and well-being of a nation, he argued, depended on the principle of national sovereignty, and this principle was the sole protector of the smaller countries against the expansionist dreams of more powerful States. He submitted a number of amendments (A/784) to the draft Declaration proposed by the Third Committee. These amendments, similar to those presented in the Third Committee -- and which provided for, inter alia, (1) the extension to the population of Non-Self-Governing Territories of the provisions regarding the human and civic rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the Declaration; (2) a declaration that it was the inalienable right of every person freely to express and disseminate democratic views, and to combat fascism; (3) a declaration that every citizen of any State must have the right, among other rights, of access to any State or public office in his country; and (4) the insertion of a new article declaring that the rights and freedoms enumerated in the draft Declaration should be guaranteed by national laws -- were all rejected by individual roll-call votes."

At the time, there were 58 countries in the United Nations. Of these only six were people's democracies in which the people were striving to affirm their human rights in very concrete ways, for national sovereignty against domination by foreign powers, against the class divisions of the old society, and who had borne the brunt of defeating Nazi-fascism at tremendous cost. However, such amendments as those from the USSR were anathema to the Anglo-American imperialists and the countries in their sphere of influence who outnumbered the people's democracies, and who sought to dominate other countries via exploitative and colonial relations.

The U.S. took up sophistic arguments to oppose the concrete issues raised in the USSR's amendments, making smug and self-serving justifications about the meaning of democracy, and that human rights exist only on an individual basis, not a collective one. This condescension toward the USSR comes across in the report in the UN Yearbook: "While paying a tribute to the USSR delegation for the tenacity with which it had defended its convictions, the representative of the United States remarked that people sometimes had to co-operate loyally with the majority even when they disagreed with its views."

In some cases, the concerns raised by the USSR in its amendments were dismissed on a purely bureaucratic basis: "The first Soviet amendment, the United States representative said, dealt with the question of minorities, and the Third Committee had already decided that that question required further study, and had recommended that it be referred, for that purpose, to the Economic and Social Council and the Commission on Human Rights. According to the representative of the United States, it was clear from the second USSR amendment that the aim was to guarantee the rights of certain groups, and not the rights of individuals, with which alone the Declaration was concerned."

As concerns the issue of the need to bar the promulgation of fascist and Nazi propaganda, then as today, the U.S. equivocated in the name of high ideals, covering up the Anglo-American hope during the war that the Nazis would defeat the Soviets, and their protection and recruitment of Nazis after the war. The U.S. representative remarked, "The effect of the third USSR amendment would be to restrict freedom of opinion and expression [and would] set up standards which would allow any State to deny freedom of opinion and expression without violating that article."

With respect to the fourth USSR amendment that would have obliged signatories to proclaim the obligations of the State with regard to the affirmation of human rights, the U.S. representative seemed to suggest an ulterior move, complaining that "the USSR delegation had tried to introduce [this concept] into practically every article of the Declaration. She submitted that if that conception were adopted, the entire character of the Declaration would be changed."

Similarly, the representative of India turned the issue of opposing fascist and Nazi propaganda into one of freedom of speech in an abstract, out of context manner that negated the serious concerns raised about such reactionary propaganda and its role in inciting aggression and war that led to millions of deaths. She "maintained that the right to hold different opinions was a sacred right and the prerogative of every truly democratic people. She declared that India, like other countries, would never agree to restricting political rights in order to realize social aims, however noble those aims might be." Needless to say, the partition of India had been imposed only the year before in August 1947, in which the British colonial power had sown divisions in society on the most backward and communal basis, with great tragedies for the people.

For its part, Bolivia, an important supplier of tin to the U.S. during World War II, took up the reactionary Cold War line of the containment of communism, by presenting a caricature of the discussion on the Declaration as "on the one hand, the thesis upheld by the USSR, characterized by the 'desire to subordinate the individual to the State,' and, on the other hand, the thesis supported by all the democratic countries, which was designed 'to make the individual capable of organizing a State which, in turn, would respect the rights of the individual.' Referring to the objections formulated by the representative of the Ukrainian SSR, the representative of Bolivia stated that the democratic peoples abhored the thesis that the happiness of mankind should be subordinated to the interests of the all-powerful communist State." Such a misrepresentation was of course a denial of the democratic empowerment in the people's democracies and the exploitive class society and the impoverishment of the peasantry and workers in other countries the world over, including the exploitation of tin miners and others in Bolivia.

Differences even arose in discussion about the order in which various rights and freedoms appeared in the final draft. The Soviet delegate took issue with too little emphasis being placed on the rights of man as a toiler and his place in society, shown by the fact that man's role as the creator of wealth had been placed last in the text. The Cuban delegate argued that in a 20th century document, social rights, which he called the achievement of the 20th century, should come before "legal rights" that were acquired long ago and repeated in a number of similar documents. Roosevelt pooh-poohed these arguments, insisting that no articles deserved precedence over any others as all were of equal importance.

Finally on December 7, 1948, the Third Committee voted 29 to 0 with 7 abstentions to approve the final draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and send it to the General Assembly for adoption. The following countries abstained: the USSR, Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine, Soviet Socialist Republic of Byelorussia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Canada.[2]

Three days later, the text was brought to a plenary session of the General Assembly where it was adopted, with 48 countries -- this time including Canada -- voting in favour, none against and eight abstaining (the USSR, Byelorussia, Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa). Two countries did not take part in the vote.

In presenting the Declaration to the members of the General Assembly, Eleanor Roosevelt announced, "We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. This Declaration may well become the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere."


1. UN Yearbook 1948-49.

2. Voting in favour were  Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, China, Cuba, Denmark, Dominican Republic, France, Greece, Haiti, Honduras, India, Iran, Lebanon, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, the Philippines, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States of America and Venezuela.

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Perspective of the Soviet Delegation on Draft Covenant on Human Rights

Discussion on human rights at the United Nations continued after adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, specifically on the Covenant on Human Rights.

In the official records of the United Nations General Assembly of December 4, 1950, the USSR delegation pointed out that "the chief fault of the UN Declaration on Human Rights was its formal, legalistic character, since it confined itself to proclaiming a few human rights in an extremely general and incomplete form, without stating the ways and means of implementing these rights."[1] The delegation pointed out that the draft Covenant "not only contains all the faults of the Declaration, but it also omits any mention of certain rights which are vitally important to millions of people, such as the right to work, the right to social security, the right to leisure, the right to education and many other social, economic and cultural rights which are contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although in a proclamatory, unsatisfactory and incomplete form." That the UN, two years after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," is even further from solving the problem of protecting and ensuring respect for human rights."

The USSR delegation proposed amendments and corrections to the draft Covenant "to ensure that all citizens, without distinction, have an opportunity to take part in the government of the State and therefore to abolish all restrictions, based on property, education, or anything else, on the right to take part in elections of candidates to representative organs, and to afford all citizens the opportunity of occupying any State or public office."

It also did so "to ensure the right of every people and every nation to national self-determination and to the development of their national culture," as well as "to provide that the State should be obliged to guarantee to everyone the right to work and to choose his profession, so that conditions may be created in which the threat of death from hunger or exhaustion will be ruled out;

"Fourthly, to ensure access to education without any discrimination whatsoever. And to ensure this by the provision of free elementary education and the organization of a system of scholarships and schools;

"Fifthly, to ensure the right to rest and leisure by providing by law for a reasonable limitation of working hours and for periodic holidays with pay;

"Sixthly, to introduce social security and social insurance for workers and employees at the expense of the State or at the expense of the employers, in accordance with the laws of each country;

"Seventhly, to take all the necessary measures to ensure decent living quarters to every person;

"Eighthly, to guarantee the strict observance of trade union rights and to create conditions in which the unhampered activities of trade union organizations can be ensured;

"Ninthly, to ensure that the rights proclaimed in the covenant are not used for purposes hostile to humanity and, in particular, for purposes of war propaganda, for fomenting hostility among nations, for inciting to racial discrimination, or for spreading slanderous rumours.

"Finally, to provide that the activities of any fascist or anti-democratic organization must be prohibited by law, subject to penalty."

The delegation of the USSR was also "unable to agree to the proposal ... for the establishment of various international organs, such as the committee on human rights; such a measure would constitute interference in the internal affairs of States and a violation of their sovereignty, since the implementation of the provisions of the Covenant in every State falls entirely within the domestic jurisdiction of the States signatories to the covenant and must allow for the specific economic, national and other characteristics of each country."

The USSR delegation believed that "it cannot be expected that the covenant should reproduce the principles and provisions of the Constitutions of socialist States, such as the Soviet Union and the peoples' democracies, where the above-mentioned human rights are confirmed by law and are guaranteed in practice on the basis of the socialist system of social relations. It must be borne in mind that such legislation is possible in the USSR and in the peoples' democracies because all exploitation of man by man has been eliminated in these countries and a firm foundation has thus been established for the universal respect for and implementation of human rights."

It further argued:

In defining the future work of the Commission on Human Rights, the General Assembly cannot, of course, ignore the particular economic and social circumstances of the various States Members of the Organization, circumstances which prevent many of them, at the present time, from settling in a consistent and satisfactory manner the problem of establishing living conditions which are really worthy of human beings. The Soviet Union delegation considers, however, that even so, the General Assembly can recommend to the Commission on Human Rights that it should include in the Covenant the aforementioned minimum rights, the implementation of which affects millions of people. This is particularly essential because it is impossible to state seriously that the draft Covenant guarantees real, and not imaginary, human rights.


1. General Assembly, 5th session: 317th plenary meeting, Monday, 4 December 1950.

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Canada's Less than Honourable Role

Canada's abstention in the vote at the Third Committee on the final draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 7, 1948 raised a lot of eyebrows at the time. Writing about this in the McGill Law Journal, William A. Schabas[1] said:

In a speech to the General Assembly, External Affairs Minister Lester B. Pearson explained the decision as a federal concern about infringing provincial jurisdiction. Even at the time, many, including Canadian international law professor John Humphrey, who served as director of the UN Secretariat's Division for Human Rights, and secretary to the Preparatory Commission of the UN, found the story hard to accept. Schabas' research of archival documents now available shows that Canadian hesitation was principally due to discomfort in the Federal Cabinet with substantive norms enshrined in the Declaration, including freedom of religion and of association. The evidence suggests that provincial jurisdiction was little more than a pretext for federal politicians who wanted to avoid international human rights commitments. The Canadian Government misled both domestic and international public opinion by concealing its substantive opposition to the Declaration behind procedural arguments. [...]

Despite the enthusiastic involvement of Humphrey, the Canadian government's attitude toward the Declaration was skeptical; at its extreme, Canada's attitude bordered on hostility. During the vote on the draft Declaration in the Third Committee of the General Assembly, the Canadian delegation, under the personal direction and instruction of Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B. Pearson, broke ranks with the vast majority of United Nations' members and declined to support the Declaration.

In May 1947 as work of the drafting committee proceeded, Canada established a Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms with a mandate to consider how obligations arising from a UN Declaration on Human Rights could best be implemented by Canada. Legal counsel for the Department of External Affairs and Humphrey emphasized to apparently skeptical parliamentarians on the Committee that the Declaration would not be a human rights treaty which would bind states that acceded to it but rather a resolution of the General Assembly with no binding effect on international law.

Minutes of the Joint Committee's meetings in 1948, reproduced or referred to by Schabas, reveal some of the concerns Canada had with the Declaration as the vote on a final draft approached. One was that it did not mention, but should, that all rights came from God; another was that the non-discrimination clause appeared to conflict with Canada's internment of people of Japanese origin, to which a BC MP responded by saying that "there was no human rights violation in the treatment of the Japanese [since] they had been interned not because of 'race' but because of 'loyalty or subversive attitudes.'" Another concern was that the democratic rights provision in the Declaration would entitle Indigenous peoples to vote at a time when Status Indians were prohibited from voting in Canada. Senator Gouin said that was not a problem since "they have the right to choose to be wards of the state and not vote, or to vote and have freedom."

In the end, the parliamentary committee indicated that it generally viewed the Declaration favourably; however in its report it did ask that the Canadian delegation take into account that it was generally opposed to "unnecessary" articles and wanted it on the record that the name of God should be embodied in the first article.

Canada Abstains in Vote to Approve Final Draft of Declaration

When discussion in the Third Committee moved to articles in the Declaration dealing with economic and social rights, Canada declared its intention to abstain from voting, claiming this was not out of opposition to the principles set forth in those articles but because the federal government "will not invade the field of provincial jurisdiction, particularly in regard to education."

Canada also argued in the Third Committee against the inclusion of a minority rights clause, claiming that in Canada there were no such issues that needed addressing. Its delegate said, "It has been stated that the problem of minorities may arise as the result of the arrival in a country of new settlers from a foreign country, or it may arise from the unfavourable circumstances in which certain indigenous national groups may find themselves. I can say quite confidently that for Canada the problem of minorities, regarded in either of these two ways, does not the sense that there is no discontent."

As the time approached for a last vote on the final draft, different scenarios were discussed between officials at External Affairs and the delegation in Paris for how Canada could work to stall the vote to buy time to tailor the document more to the government's liking. The problem however was how, in so doing, not to fall afoul of the U.S and Britain, who were both keen to pass the Declaration without further delay, and how to avoid making Canada the subject of criticism for appearing in principle to oppose the adoption of a human rights declaration.

Matters were brought to a head, however, with an unambiguous message sent by acting Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, who said he was particularly concerned about the potential for articles dealing with freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and the right to employment in the public service to be used "as an undertaking not to discriminate against communists because of their political views and of article 27 as obliging a state to provide higher education to everyone at the cost of the state if he cannot pay for it." The delegation replied, "In accordance with your instructions the Canadian delegation will not sponsor nor support the early passage of the Declaration on Human Rights in its present form."

The back and forth continued, however, over what Canada should do as Lester Pearson, who now was Minister of External Affairs, became increasingly concerned that abstaining in the final vote and standing against the vast majority, including the U.S. and Britain, would not be good for Canada's image. Domestic political calculations appear to have led Pearson in the end to advise abstaining in the Third Committee vote and voting in favour of the Declaration in the General Assembly.

So on December 7 when it came time to vote on the final draft in the Third Committee Canada joined the USSR, Ukraine, Byelorussia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia in abstaining. Schabas writes that after the vote Pearson, who was by now in Paris to attend the upcoming meeting of the General Assembly, informed Ottawa that Canada's delegation was urgently approached by the United Kingdom and the United States, who explained they were prepared to approve the Declaration in the form it was in, despite its imperfections, because of its value as a propaganda tool for use against countries in the Soviet bloc where, they claimed, people's human rights were being denied. They regarded Canada's abstention "as a serious weakening of the propaganda position which they were hoping to achieve" Pearson said. It also was not lost on him how it looked for Canada to have been the odd-man-out by abstaining, along with the members of the "Soviet bloc" -- if for very different reasons.

Three days later, in keeping with the plan, Canada switched and voted in favour of the Declaration at the General Assembly. Pearson's December 10 speech to the Assembly addressed a number of Canadian reservations concerning some "difficulties and ambiguities" in the Declaration, but clearly implied that there were no serious problems with the substance of the instrument. Not convinced, Schabas says:

Yet the documents in the National Archives reveal a different story. Prime Minister St. Laurent himself had expressed major concerns about freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and the right to employment in the public service, because of their potential invocation by Communists. Unnamed members of the Cabinet also complained about protecting freedom of religion as the provision might provide support to Jehovah's Witnesses. Even the opposition to recognition of economic and social rights, presented as nothing more than a federal-provincial dispute, clearly cut deeper. The Parliamentary Committee had already indicated that it felt such provisions, which imposed duties on states rather than granting rights to individuals, had no place in the Declaration... [...]

The Canadian Government, and the Department of Foreign Affairs in particular, misled both domestic and international public opinion by concealing its substantive opposition to the Declaration behind procedural arguments. Aside from the outright hostility to specific provisions of the Declaration, there was also a strong dose of indifference.... [...]

There was simply no "human rights culture" within the Department of External Affairs. It is impossible to identify a single official among the many distinguished Canadian personalities who then worked for the Department -- including Pearson, [Escott] Reid and [George] Ignatieff -- who viewed the Declaration as being of real significance. None of them even mentioned the subject in their memoirs. They seem to have been preoccupied by other issues of the day, such as the Berlin airlift and the creation of NATO.


1. Schabas, William A. (1998) Canada and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. McGill Law Journal, 43 (2). pp. 403-441.

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Text of Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in cooperation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, therefore,

The General Assembly,

Proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Article 1

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Furthermore, 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.

Article 3

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11

  1. Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
  2. No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.
  2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14

  1. Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
  2. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15

  1. Everyone has the right to a nationality.
  2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16

  1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
  3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17

  1. Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
  2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
  2. No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21

  1. Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
  2. Everyone has the right to equal access to public service in his country.
  3. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23

  1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  2. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  3. Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25

  1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
  2. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26

  1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
  3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27

  1. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
  2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29

  1. Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
  2. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
  3. These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

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