The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, December 1998 | Go to article overview

The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948. It is one of this century's most influential documents. This article, after defining 'human rights', looks at the UDHR's creation, how it has led to the creation of treaties, and it concludes with some speculation about the future impact of human rights on the current system of nation-states.

'Human Rights' are fundamental privileges or immunities to which all people have a claim. They are not 'given' by governments since they are derived automatically from being human. Since governments cannot 'give' human rights, they should not try to take them away. Human rights thinking - especially since 1945 - is based on the assumption that in essence all humans have a common core. Humans may be divided on gender lines, speak different languages, and have different skin colours. But fundamentally there are great similarities and these similarities are manifested partly in the rights which all humans enjoy.

The initiative for the UDHR came about as a reaction to World War II. First, Hitler had shown that a country which violates human rights at home may eventually violate human rights overseas, and so it was necessary to nip such threats in the bud. Also the Allied countries were embarrassed that none of them had complained officially between January 1933 (when Hitler came to power) and September 1939 (the onset of World War II) about the treatment of the Jews. The Allies claimed that countries were not allowed to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries - and so this ban prohibited even making criticisms of other governments' internal policies.

Second, there was the role of private citizens and non-governmental organizations. The British writer H. G. Wells called for a Great Debate on War Aims. He argued that beating Hitler was not sufficient and that the Allies must have positive and not just negative aims. He proposed that the outcome should be a re-assertion of the rights of individuals everywhere in the world. He argued that the historic moment had arrived for a re-definition of the rights and opportunities of the individual and a protection of the individual against the encroachments of centralized authority. The Daily Herald, which then had the largest circulation of all the British newspapers, undertook a public educational campaign which seems unbelievable by today's standards of the tabloid press - and even more so since a war was under way. With H. G. Wells, the newspaper produced a version of the Rights of Man in the Twentieth Century. Wells introduced each group of clauses by an article. The newspaper arranged for leading thinkers in Britain to argue the clauses and for ordinary readers to have their say. Newspapers were sold widely not only to the usual readership but also to, for example, universities and church guilds. These groups sent in their views. The responses were assembled for consideration by the drafting committee which was to produce the consensus of British thinking about human rights. The results were much later submitted to the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Finally, there was the 'Four Freedoms' speech of President Franklin Roosevelt in January 1941. The United States was not yet at war but that involvement could not be deferred for much longer. In the meantime, Americans should rededicate themselves to the four basic freedoms of humankind: the first was freedom of speech and expression; second, freedom of every person to worship God in his or her own way; third, freedom from want, which meant economic agreements to secure to every country a healthy peacetime life for it's inhabitants; and fourth, freedom from fear, which meant a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point that no country would be in a position to commit an act of aggression against any other.

The UN Charter was written in the last stages of World War II. At the 1945 San Francisco Conference which finalized the Charter, there was a proposal that the Charter contain an International Bill of Rights in the same way as the US Constitution has its own Bill of Rights. …

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