December 10, 1948
75th Anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights
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, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, 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 USSR, 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.
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 be 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.
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.