On This Day

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Eleanor Roosevelt holds the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

On This Day: UN Adopts Universal Declaration of Human Rights

December 10, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Dec. 10, 1948, the UN General Assembly approved a declaration recognizing the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights grew out of international revulsion over the mass killings of World War II, particularly the Holocaust. It was the product of the Commission on Human Rights, set up in 1946 as an independent body within the framework of the United Nations.

Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, whose late husband Franklin D. Roosevelt was instrumental in the creation of the United Nations, saw herself as the driving force behind the commission and served as chairwoman in 1947.

“Mrs. Roosevelt drove her colleagues mercilessly,” writes The New York Times. “There were fourteen, sixteen hour days and some delegates may have secretly whispered the prayer ascribed to President Roosevelt: ‘O Lord, make Eleanor tired!’”

No less important in the drafting of the declaration were French jurist Rene Cassin, Lebanese philosopher Charles Malik, Chinese philosopher Chang Peng-chun, and Canadian law professor John Humphrey, the author of the first draft. They spent years debating the philosophy and meaning of human rights as the declaration was formed.

In the end, these philosophical differences were not resolved and do not appear on the face of the Declaration, which adopts instead a more pragmatic approach to the basis of human rights, settling on the general concept of ‘human dignity,’” writes Columbia University professor Peter Danchin.

The Soviet delegates proved to be the biggest hindrance to the declaration, pushing for amendments that allowed each country to determine if rights were being met. The Soviet Union and five Soviet satellite countries were among the eight countries—Saudi Arabia and South Africa being the other—that abstained in voting for the declaration.

After three long sessions between 1946 and 1948, the commission drafted and presented the declaration to the General Assembly when it convened in Paris. The declaration contained 30 articles outlining fundamental political, social, economic and cultural rights.

On Dec. 9, 1948, hours before the General Assembly was to vote on the declaration, Mrs. Roosevelt made an address to the assembly. “We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind,” she stated. “This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere. We hope its proclamation by the General Assembly will be an event comparable to the proclamation of the Declaration of the Rights of the Man by the French people in 1789, the adoption of the Bill of Rights by the people of the United States, and the adoption of comparable declarations at different times in other countries.”

In the early morning hours of Dec. 10, the General Assembly voted 48-0, with eight abstentions, to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Commission for Human Rights and Human Rights Council

In 2001, the United States was voted off the UN Human Rights Commission for the first time since the panel was created in 1947. President Bush’s policies, including his opposition to the Kyoto treaty on climate change and a treaty to abolish land mines, as well as his calls for a missile defense system, were reasons cited by some delegates for the decision in 2001.

The New York Times described the vote as “apparently an act of cumulative annoyance after years of American rejection of international agreements, the hounding from office of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and congressional blocking of dues that beggared the United Nations.” It might look “like overkill to many Americans. But it has also sounded an alarm.”

Despite opposition by the United States, the Commission for Human Rights was replaced by the Human Rights Council in March 2006, one of several proposals for change made the previous year by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Under President Bush, the U.S. was critical of the HRC for an alleged anti-Israel bias. In 2009, incoming President Barack Obama reversed Bush’s policy toward the council and sought election; the U.S. was elected to a three-year term that May.

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