Charles H. Malik and Human Rights: Notes on a Biography

By Mitoma, Glenn | Biography, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Charles H. Malik and Human Rights: Notes on a Biography


Mitoma, Glenn, Biography


The Lebanese diplomat and philosopher Charles Malik is hardly an unknown figure in the recent history of human rights. Indeed, few accounts of the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) have ignored Malik's decisive influence, whether in shaping the specific language of any number of articles, or in sheparding the Declaration through the polarized Cold War bureaucracy of the United Nations. Johannes Morsink places him among the "inner core" of the early UN Human Rights Commission (HRC) members (30). Paul Gordon Lauren notes that Malik was among the few delegates "to command respect when they spoke," and who had a full grasp of the intellectual and political issues at stake in the UN human rights project (222). Mary Ann Glendon declares Malik "crucial" to the development of the UDHR--"the right [person] at the right time" (xx-xxi). But while there is unanimity on the importance of Malik's contributions, and a widespread sense that Malik was, in the words of the British legal historian A. W. Brian Simpson, the "most remarkable member" of the early Human Rights Commission (367), there is no agreement on what those remarks should be.

Accounts often emphasize Malik's role either to support or deny the claim that the UN human rights regime is "Western" in some fundamental sense. For those highlighting the ecumenical character of the UDHR drafting process, such as Paul Gordon Lauren (222), Mary Ann Glendon (222-232), Susan Waltz (443), and Zehra F. Kabasakal Arat (420), Malik represented a "Middle Eastern" perspective that allowed human rights at the UN to transcend their European genealogy. For Makau Mutua (154-55), Virginia Leary (21), and Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im (350), Malik's education at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and Harvard University, along with what they suppose to be his "individualistic" political philosophy, indicate a "clear" Western orientation that is not mitigated by the Lebanese nameplate in front of him.

Inherent in this debate is not only a conflict over Malik's capacity to represent a non-Western perspective, but also a shared assumption about the political significance of personal biography. On the one side, Malik's nativity, citizenship, and state authorization are sufficient to mark him as authentic (enough) to present the "Middle Eastern View." On the other side, the educational institutions he attended, as well as his overt Cold War sympathies, are likewise sufficient to brand Malik with the scarlet letter of Westernization, and make him an unwitting mouthpiece of European and American neocolonialism. But both sides assume that the cultural essence of what Malik contributed to the UN human rights regime is located in his biography, and both see him as a receptacle for either a common Middle East perspective or sentiment, or the indoctrination of Western teachers and ideas.

But if it is true that Malik's biography is the key to understanding his human rights commitments, it is not because it allows us to categorize him with confidence as either Western or Arab. Indeed, such shorthand identifications of Malik obscure both the processes through which such identities become possible, as well as the contested and constructed nature of these terms. Rather, a close reading of his life story allows for an examination of the historical processes by which Malik's identity was formed in relation to the manifold discourses, institutions, and practices of human rights. What such a reading reveals is the degree to which Malik's engagement with the American system of education provoked and enabled him to attempt to revise and reconstruct what it meant to be Western and Arab in the modern world--in part by fashioning himself as a particular kind of Western Arab individual. His engagement with the discourse and practice of universal rights was an essential and privileged iteration of this project.

What is also revealed, or at least suggested, is that as a form of personal narrative, biography may be a particularly significant mode of inquiry for understanding the political discourse of human rights more generally. …

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