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World Voices Project by Brenda Ray

Latest Human Rights Day

the First Global Statement of the Inherent
Dignity and Equality of All

Throughout history, conflict, in the form of wars or as popular uprisings, has often come in reaction to inhumane treatment and injustice. The English Bill of Rights in 1689, drafted after the English Civil Wars, sprang from the people’s aspiration for democracy. Exactly a century later, the French Revolution gave rise to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and its proclamation of equality for all. But the Cyrus Cylinder, issued in 539 B.C. by Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (ancient Iran) after his conquest of Babylon, is said by many to be the first human rights document, and the Pact of the Virtuous (Hifl-al-fudul), concluded by Arab tribes around 590 AD, is considered one of the first human rights alliances.

After the Second World War and the creation of the United Nations, the international community vowed never again to allow atrocities like those of that conflict.  World leaders decided to complement the UN Charter with a road map to guarantee the rights of every individual everywhere, always.

The document they considered, and which would later become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was taken up at the first session of the General Assembly in 1946.  The Assembly reviewed this draft Declaration on Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms and transmitted it to the Economic and Social Council "for reference to the Commission on Human Rights for consideration . . . in its preparation of an international bill of rights." The Commission, at its first session early in 1947, authorized its members to formulate what it termed "a preliminary draft International Bill of Human Rights". Later the work was taken over by a formal drafting committee, consisting of members of the Commission from eight States, selected with due regard for geographical distribution.

The People behind the vision: the UDHR Drafting Committee

Three members of the UN Commission on Human Rights in conversation
Three members of the UN Commission on Human Rights in
conversation before a meeting.
Left to right: (Malik, Cassin, and Roosevelt).
Credit: UN Photo.

The Commission on Human Rights was made up of 18 members from various political, cultural and religious backgrounds. Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, chaired the UDHR drafting committee. With her were René Cassin of France, who composed the first draft of the Declaration, the Committee Rapporteur Charles Malik of Lebanon, Vice-Chairman Peng Chung Chang of China, and John Humphrey of Canada, Director of the UN’s Human Rights Division, who prepared the Declaration’s blueprint. But Mrs. Roosevelt was recognized as the driving force for the Declaration’s adoption.

The Commission met for the first time in 1947. In her memoirs, Eleanor Roosevelt recalls: “Dr. Chang was a pluralist and held forth in charming fashion on the proposition that there is more than one kind of ultimate reality.  The Declaration, he said, should reflect more than simply Werstern ideas and Dr. Humphrey would have to be eclectic in his approach.  His remark, though addressed to Dr. Humprhey, was really directed at Dr. Malik, from whom it drew a prompt retort as he expounded at some length the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.  Dr. Humphrey joined enthusiastically in the discussion, and I remember that at one point Dr. Chang suggested that the Secretariat might well spend a few months studying the fundamentals of Confucianism!

The final draft by Cassin was handed to the Commission on Human Rights, which was being held in Geneva. The draft declaration sent out to all UN member States for comments became known as the Geneva draft.

The first draft of the Declaration was proposed in September 1948 with over 50 Member States participating in the final drafting. By its resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948, the General Assembly, meeting in Paris, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with eight nations abstaining from the vote but none dissenting. Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile, member of 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.”

The entire text of the UDHR was composed in less than two years. At a time when the world was divided into Eastern and Western blocks, finding a common ground on what should make the essence of the document proved to be a colossal task.