Savi Hensman

Developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

By Savi Hensman
April 22, 2008

On 10 December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly ‘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’.

In the sixty years since, it has been widely studied in various languages, and has had a major influence on legal and social norms, though it is still often not observed. The Declaration, and indeed the concept of human rights, also continue to be debated. Does this represent a triumph of the Enlightenment, the welcome reflection of human progress in recent centuries from past eras of tyranny and superstition? Or has too much emphasis on human rights helped to sideline religion, the best guarantor of virtue and harmony, or sought to impose universal norms on diverse communities and cultures without sufficient respect for difference? The reality is perhaps more complex.

The Universal Declaration was not developed and agreed as an abstract philosophical statement but rather in a particular historical situation. In the previous decade-and-a-half, horrors including torture and mass murder had been inflicted on numerous victims, frequently with the involvement of quite ordinary people who believed they were doing their duty. It became apparent that respectable citizens – including those who were well-educated, cultured and thought of themselves as decent types – could be induced to take part in acts of great cruelty. Social and technological progress was not sufficient protection against barbarism, and indeed could make its results all the more devastating.

In the years leading up to the UN Declaration, there had also been a growing demand for an end to the double standards by which people of certain nations and ethnic groups were treated as less than fully human. Vietnamese nationalists drew attention in 1945 to the claim in the US Declaration of Independence that ‘All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’, stating of this ‘immortal statement’ that ‘In a broader sense, this means: All the people on the earth are free from birth, all the peoples have the right to live, to be happy and free.’ Likewise, despite the Declaration of the French Revolution that ‘All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights’, ‘for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow-citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and of justice.’ To other anticolonialists too, the time had come to acknowledge that the rights of men and women across the globe should be respected.

Fostering greater piety was not in itself enough to guard against abuses: religious leaders (with honourable exceptions) had all too often supported, or failed to oppose, even the worst atrocities. Despite the core teachings of their faiths, these had been widely interpreted as allowing, in pursuit of certain causes, violence against the defenceless and disregard of basic freedoms. Some practical guidance on what was unacceptable in all situations was needed.

This context is reflected in the Preamble to the UN Declaration:
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…

In the task of preparing this document for the recently-formed UN, the director of the Human Rights Division, John Humphrey, a Canadian, was joined by an eighteen-nation Human Rights Commission. A smaller drafting committee included René Cassin, a distinguished French Jewish lawyer, Charles Malik, a Lebanese diplomat, philosopher and Christian theologian, and Peng-Chun Chang from China.

As Charles Malik extolled the thought of St Thomas Aquinas, and Peng-Chun Chang suggested that it might also be useful to study the philosophy of Confucius, the challenge was clear. Finding a form of wording which could be agreed by governments with differing ideologies and interests, and which could win the support of people with varying beliefs and cultures, would not be easy. However, recent international research on views of rights in various nations had indicated that there might be some common ground, and Panama and Chile had sponsored bills of rights drawing on this, which proved useful to the drafters. Delegates to the UN from Latin American countries used to combining different traditions of social thought, had taken the lead in pressing for the universal declaration; and, at the urging of the Dominican Republic representative, equal rights for women and men were included.

The emerging drafts included social, economic and cultural as well as political rights. This did not fit neatly with the worldview of the major powers in either the Western or Soviet bloc, but they could be persuaded to live with the result. It was perhaps helpful that the chair of the Commission was Eleanor Roosevelt, an Anglican and one of the more radical figures in the US establishment. Her popularity and powers of persuasion made it harder for her government to oppose the Declaration, though it included such rights as an adequate standard of living and protection against unemployment.

In addition, while the concept of human rights drew on Enlightenment values, varied traditions – including faith-based thinking on justice and dignity – were also taken into account. The Commission of the Churches on International Affairs was among the organisations which actively encouraged the development of an international human rights framework under the auspices of the UN.

On 10 December 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with eight nations abstaining but none voting against the resolution. Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile, who had served on the drafting sub-committee, wrote: ‘I perceived clearly that I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing—which gave rise to the inalienable right to live free from want and oppression and to fully develop one’s personality. In the Great Hall…there was an atmosphere of genuine solidarity and brotherhood among men and women from all latitudes, the like of which I have not seen again in any international setting.’

Giving legal force to the principles in the Declaration has proved harder, and – sixty years on – rights are still often violated. Some leaders are willing to denounce violations by their opponents but ignore the misdeeds of their allies. In addition, the notion that any code or system can be truly universal has, understandably, been questioned. Yet time and again, people throughout the world whose freedoms and dignity have been trampled on, and those championing them, have used the Declaration to mark the wrongness of oppression. And among people of all faiths and none, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has helped to inspire action to create a world of freedom and fellowship, where ideas can be freely discussed and food, education and healthcare are available to all.


© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities and is a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. Savi is an Ekklesia associate.

This article is part of a series on Human Rights, human wrongs and religion.

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