America on the U.N. & Human Rights: From 1948

UN Declaration on Human Rights

July 3, 1948

Publication on June 19 of this year of the proposed United Nations Declaration on Human Rights was not a noisy affair. It slipped quietly into the daily press, overshadowed by pre-convention news, Palestine, the draft filibuster, the Presidents tour, the UMW dispute, Berlin currency reform, and a dozen other contentious matters, all strident with the excitement of human differences. Agreements, for the most part, do not make big headlines, especially when they are reached under such obstacles as beset the arduous sessions of the UN Commission on Human Rights. The declaration is now ready for submission to the Economic and Social Council in July, for final approval. However, it has already sufficient finality to be extremely significant. The full applications of such a document, obviously, are not apparent at the moment of its first appearance; but become clear in the course of time, as its provisions are invoked by victims of injustice or planners of policies, by governments, parties, individuals, in good or bad faith.


History created the Human Rights Declaration, for it grew out of a general and agonized response to such frightful assaults upon the conscience of mankind as the world has never seen; out of the even more alarming consciousness that these same assaults are still continuing and threaten all of us in the near future; out of the determined action of enlightened American citizens at San Francisco, who urged the creation of a Commission on Human Rights as a "necessary part of permanent peace"; and, finally, out of the painstaking and persevering participation of a multitude of voluntary agencies, representing the moral and religious convictions of citizens at home and abroad.

It was a work that had to be undertaken, even if something far short of perfection was to be attained. Men of today, in the words of John W. Davis, chairman of the committee urging this procedure, "must set their feet on this path if civilization is to be justified by its work."

Perhaps the simplest observation to make about a document that would require a volume for adequate comment, is to say that considering the circumstances under which it was produced, it is remarkably good.

What we have to "consider" is the abnormal situation symbolized, let us say, by Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt when, as spokesman for the U. S. delegation to the Commission, she was endeavoring week after week and month after month to explain to the Soviet and satellite representatives just how people in the Western countries felt about such matters as the equal dignity and rights of human beings (Art. 1); involuntary servitude (Art. 4); arbitrary arrest (Art. 7); the right to leave any country, including ones own (Art. 11); the right to own property alone (Art. 15); to freedom of opinion and expression and "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers" (Art. 17); the right to freedom of assembly and association (Art. 18); etc.

The influence of the religious groups is particularly evident in the assertion that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which includes the right to change his belief or to manifest it in public or in private." While this wording is not strictly acceptable from the Catholic viewpoint, the substance is guaranteed of what Catholics and all believers rightly claim against totalitarian invasion of the individuals rights. And the strong stand of the Catholic Church on the family is reflected in Art. 14, which states that "the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection;"

The detailed "social" articles (20-23; 26) are a new departure in the field of human-rights declarations. Though they, in turn, reflect the strong pressure exerted by the Soviets for the embodiments of such pronouncements, their wording is entirely in accordance with well recognized Christian principles. They include the "right to work and pay, and to protection against unemployment" (Art. 21); the right to an adequate standard of living, and to security in the event of various disasters or old age (Art. 22:1); and state that "mother and child have the right to special care and assistance" (Art. 22:2). Generally popular is apt to be Art. 24: "Everyone has the right to rest and leisure."

The reception and study given to the Declaration will greatly affect the development of its sister document, the proposed Covenant on Human Rights, which is still to appear.

The Meaning of Man

Oct. 30, 1948

It is not too difficult to fall into the error of looking upon the work of drafting the proposed UN Declaration on Human Rights as an interesting but academic exercise, not comparable in importance with the stern work of the First Committee, which wrestles with political issues, security and the atomic bomb. Mr. Malik of Lebanon, Christian delegate from an Arab state, does not see it that way. On October 18, addressing the General Assembly, he reminded the representatives of the member states that the matter of human rights lies at the heart of the Charter. One of the reasons, in fact, for the very existence of the United Nations is "to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person ... " (Preamble to the UN Charter). Said Mr. Malik:

I know that the topics which will be examined by the First Committee are full of excitement, but such excitement comes and goes; and what abides is the final issue of principle in the present world situation. For everybody knows by now that the ultimate issues today are all ideological, and therefore it must be clear that even the political excitement of the First Committee derives its pathos and significance from the. underlying ideological conflict.

The disorder of this age, an age on which has fallen "the vengeance of the dark and primitive," is due to cynical neglect of the mind and spirit of man. Neglected, these pervert both themselves and the world. "The most important issue in the order of truth today," the Lebanese delegate concluded,

… is what constitutes the proper worth and dignity of man ...Unless this issue is rightly settled, there is no meaning to any other settlement. Do not tell me that you are going to settle Korea, and Germany, and Palestine, and atomic energy, and leave this central issue unsettled. For what is the use of a peace and a settlement in which man is left ambiguous, estranged from himself and from the truth?

Speeches like this are often crowded out in the press by "important" news. But if the UN does not heed Mr. Maliks admonitions, that will be important news; and its import will be ominous for us all.

Mrs. Roosevelt and Our Freedoms

Dec. 4, 1948

The universal right to rest, leisure, reasonably limited working hours and paid holidays was adopted on Nov. 20 as a part of the draft of the International Declaration of Human Rights that is now under discussion by the Social Committee of the UN General Assembly. As she has done on so many previous occasions, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt raised an objection against a Soviet amendment. The proposed amendment, which was defeated, would have added a provision that these rights were to be guaranteed "either by law or by contractual agreements." Against this addition Mrs. Roosevelt made the point that these "legalistic" specifications were fitting in the Convention on Human Rights, which would be legally binding upon all the governments that adopted it. But the Declaration itself is simply a concise statement of Alexei P .. Pavlov, replied in the usual confusing fashion by making counter-charges and accusations. If anyone has followed the course of these debates, first at GenevaParis, he will doubtless wonder why the Soviet representatives keep on demanding for the Declaration a type of legal specification which has repeatedly been shown to belong not to the Declaration but to the Convention. The answer would seem to be found in the principle around which the debates themselves have clustered. The Soviets call the Declaration mere "empty promises" because from the very nature of their communist-revolutionary philosophy there can be no validity in any general principles of human rights. Mans rights and claims to freedom do not derive their validity from his innate spiritual dignity, in Marxist thought, but only from the urge of the revolutionary mass to which he belongs, enforced through the workers State. It is Mrs. Roosevelts merit that, as the United States representative, she has shown herself so consistently aware of this basic difference in philosophy. Her reputation would be excellent if the same straight thinking characterized some of her replies to queries in the popular magazines. It is too bad that so enlightened a defender of our human liberties, including that of religious freedom, should (in the Ladies Home Journal for Nov. 26) so decidedly confuse the issue by saying that religion should not be taught "in the public schools" because (?) "we decided long ago to separate church and state." Congress decided long ago that we should have schools to promote "morality and religion." 

The Old Years legacy to the New

Jan. 1, 1949

Following his usual custom, Father Time arranged for the annual 51. Sylvester Day conference between the Old Year and the New on December 3l.

Old Year: Blessings on you, little man …

New Year: Thanks, but along with your blessing youre handing me an awful lot of trouble. I am trusting President Truman to handle the 81st Congress at home, but I thought the United Nations would have straightened out things abroad. Indonesia, for instance, or the dilemma in China.

Old Year: Well, I talked a good deal like that when I first took office. I guess it runs in the family. After all, I inherited the UN; I didnt create it. Some of these matters, like the Italian colonies and the admission of Israel to UN membership, I think you can settle better than I. On the other hand, I do feel quite annoyed that the question of Russias conduct in Berlin was allowed to bog down into a mess of merely technical discussions; and that, as a capital political problem, it was not dragged out into the spotlight for all the world to pronounce upon.

New Year: So, like J. G. Rogers in the N. Y. Herald Tribune, you find more to boast about in the social than in the political achievements of the United Nations.

Old Year: Meinetwegen, as the Germans say: so just let me boast. I dont think the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved on December 7 by the Social Committee of the UN General Assembly, was altogether such a bad job. It was the climax of three years hard work: first, in the UN Human Rights Commission, later in the Social Committee of the GA. It deals with an issue that convulses the whole world: the liberties that the individual wishes to preserve against the mounting tide of totalitarianism.

New Year: It describes liberties, but doesnt tell how to preserve them. I noticed that our hard-headed "realists," the Soviet representatives, thought that a Declaration means nothing unless a government is at hand to enforce its findings.

Old Year: That is precisely because it is a Declaration of principles, not a legally binding Covenant. Its importance lies in the fact that it is a step towards such a Covenant; or, rather, the GA Committees work is the first of two steps. The second step will be its adoption, as a Declaration, by the General Assembly when the latter meets in the fall. But as a Declaration it can be, and is, broader and freer than can reasonably be expected of a Covenant.

New Year: Father Time, however, tells me your famous Declaration is deprived of moral worth because it omits the name of God, our Creator and Final End. I note this objection was raised by the Netherlands delegate, L. J. C. Beaufort (AM. 12/18, p. 280) and by the Vatican paper, Osservatore Romano.

Old Year: Frankly, I am not much impressed by the attempts that have been made to justify that omission, and consider it a major defect. But along with this and other less striking defects, the document still retains such important significance that it would be as unwise to underestimate its importance as it would be to over-idealize it.

New Year: Looks to me as if the Declaration had appeased the Soviets.

Old Year: On the contrary, it was constructed throughout the long series of debates in the face of bitter Soviet opposition. As Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, chief of the American delegation, remarked in her address at the Sorbonne on Sept. 28, 1948:

The Declaration has come [to the General Assembly] from the [UN] Human Rights Commission with unanimous acceptance except for four abstentions—the USSR, Yugoslavia, Ukraine and Byelorussia. The reason for this is a fundamental difference in the conception of human rights. as they exist in these States and in certain other Member States in the United Nations.

In other words, apart from all other considerations, the Declaration has special meaning as a world-wide protest against the Soviet falsification of the idea of liberty.

New Year: But is there any practical significance to it, apart from its being, as you say, a "step towards" the Covenant, and a “protest against" totalitarianism?

Old Year: The Declaration, for better or worse, is a code, and when you have a clearly formulated and widely publicized code, it finds its way through innumerable channels into party platforms, legislation and the framing of institutions. Were Father Time not getting so restless and rattling that old scythe of his, I could give you countless examples of how other codes have had this effect. Every article in this Declaration has a direct bearing upon legislation in every State in this country, and in Congress as well: rights to fair and public hearing…freedom of thought, conscience and religion...equal access to public service…work without discrimination…just remuneration…standard of living…prior right of parents to choose the kind of education that shall be given their children, etc. etc. Governments were quick to note the effect that the Declaration would have upon colonies, since it deals with the rights that come to people as individuals, not with rights that are to be communicated to them by the various states.

New Year: But the Soviets claim that it infringes on national sovereignty!

Old Year: Brig. Gen. Carlos P. Romulo, of the Philippines, contested this charge by pointing out that any lessening of national sovereignties which would be required by "a new world order under enforceable world law" would have to be made in the perspective of the Declaration, "as a result of the will of the free peoples determined to live together in a single and indivisible world."

New Year: But nothing will come of it unless it is used, unless it is acted upon.

Old Year: Which is but another way of saying that the Declaration is not only a step, a protest, a code, but also a tool—to be used or not used as human will determines. Again quoting Mrs. F. D. R.:

Freedom for our peoples is not only a right, but also a tool. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of information, freedom of assembly-these are not just abstract ideals to us; they are tools with which we create a way of life in which we can enjoy freedom .... I pray Almighty God that we may win another victory here for the rights and freedoms of all men.

For the first time in history, said Dr. Edward Malik of Lebanon, the worlds governments were told precisely what were the human rights to which they had pledged themselves.

At this moment Father Time ominously brandished his scythe—which, he explained, was neither a hammer nor a sickle—and the Old Year faded gracefully from our view.

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