The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent


In his 1941 State of the Union message President Franklin Roosevelt called for the protection worldwide of four essential freedoms: "the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear". Roosevelt's enunciation of these freedoms was part of a movement that gathered strength in the 1940s and strived to make the protection of human rights part of the conditions for peace at the end of World War II. In 1947 Eleanor Roosevelt was elected to be the chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that was charged to produce a separate document for this purpose. The resulting Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, has become the moral backbone of more than two hundred human rights instruments that are now a part of our world. The document has been a source of hope and inspiration to thousands of groups and millions of oppressed individuals. Johannes Morsink offers a behind-the-scenes account of the Declaration's origins and development. He reports on the detailed discussions that took place in the United Nations, tells us which countries argued for or against each provision of the Declaration, explains why certain important amendments were rejected, and shows how common revulsion toward the Holocaust provided the consensus needed to adopt this universal code of ethics.


It is inevitable that a document like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should raise questions about the possibility of there being universal values. This questioning started before the document was even finished, has continued to this day, and will probably never end.

In 1947 the UN Human Rights Commission that wrote the Declaration received a long memorandum from the American Anthropological Association (AAA). The AAA was worried about the problem of ethnocentrism (holding the values of one’s own culture as superior to those of other cultures). It is hard to avoid making ethnocentric judgments because we grow up with the values of our own group or society, and we almost never stop to analyze them. This process of enculturation, as the AAA told the Commission, is “so subtle, and its effects so far-reaching, that only after considerable training are we conscious of it.”

The anthropologists believed that the Human Rights Commission was in danger of making such ethnocentric judgments in the International Bill of Rights. As they saw it, “the primary task” the drafters faced was to find a solution to the following problem: “How can the proposed Declaration be applicable to all human beings and not be a statement of rights conceived only in terms of values prevalent in the countries of Western Europe and America?” (p. 116). The AAA was worried that this problem had no good solution.

The anthropologists highlighted three propositions for the Commission to ponder: (1) “The individual realizes his personality through his culture, hence respect for individual differences entails respect for cultural differences”; (2) “Respect for differences between cultures is validated by the scientific fact that no technique of qualitatively evaluating cultures has been discovered”; and (3) “Standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt to formulate postulates that grow out of the beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any Declaration of Human Rights to mankind as a whole” (emphasis added). Behind these propositions lay the conviction that “what is held to be a human right in one society may be regarded as anti-social by another people, or by the same people in a different period of their history.”

Depending on how we interpret the phrase “to that extent” in the third proposition, the Commission was either asked to be extremely careful so as not to recommend merely Western values to the rest of the world, or was politely told that it was trying the square the circle and that the job it had been given by the Economic and Social Coun-

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