Human Rights for AllMARY ANN GLENDON
The parts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that speak to economic and social justice are almost completely ignored today; even by the major human rights organizations. It seems to me that the most pressing task for friends of human rights today is to re-unite the two halves of the divided soul of the human rights project — its commitment to personal freedom and its sense of one human family for which we all bear a common responsibility.
I am delighted and
honored to be here this evening. And I am particularly grateful for the opportunity
to speak to an Australian audience about a subject that has occupied so much of
my research time for the past few years — the largely forgotten history of
the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And since some of the most interesting
things I learned about the origins of that document involve Australia, I've been
looking forward very much to this occasion.
When I go to a lecture,
I often wish I had a program like the ones you get at the theatre. I imagine that
I am not the only person who likes to know where a speaker is headed (and sometimes
how close he or she is to the end). So let me begin with a brief outline of the
story I'll be telling. Part I takes place at the UN Founding Conference in San
Francisco, where, thanks in large part to the Australian delegation, it was decided
that the UN would concern itself with economic and social issues as well as collective
security. Part II takes place two years later in the UN Commission that drafted
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where an interesting fusion took place
among diverse visions of social justice. In Part III, I'll fast-forward to the
contemporary UN where the 1948 Declaration is now under attack from a variety
of quarters. And finally, I will offer some reflections on the current status
of the questions that Australia tried to keep at the forefront of international
1. San Francisco, 1945
In April 1945, when the Allied leaders invited delegates from 50 countries
to put the finishing touches on the UN Charter, it was by no means clear that
the protection of human rights would figure among the purposes of the new organization.
What Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin had in mind mainly was a collective security
arrangement for the postwar period. It was only after they had settled everything
that was most important to them that they called a conference where smaller powers
could participate. Or — more precisely — where they planned to give
other countries the sense of participating. As Churchill put it to Roosevelt,
"The eagles should permit the small birds to sing and care not wherefore
they sang." The idea of human rights was so far from the minds of the major
powers that they mentioned it only once, briefly, in their draft proposal for
the UN Charter.
Among the delegates who came to the San Francisco conference,
however, were several who had a more expansive vision of what the new organization
should be like. They had not traveled long distances in wartime just to serve
as rubber stamps. The twelve-member Australian delegation had had a particularly
grueling trip. As recounted by Mrs. Jessie Street, the only woman in the group,
they made the two day voyage in a bomber plane, seated against the wall with no
place to rest their heads except on their neighbor's shoulder. Once they reached
their destination, Australia's Minister for External Affairs, Herbert Evatt, lost
no time in becoming a thorn in the side of the major powers. He quickly got the
"eagles'" full attention by spearheading a movement to clip their wings
— by limiting the veto power of the five permanent members of the Security
Council. That initiative gathered such momentum, that an alarmed Harry Truman
called the Australian Prime Minister to ask that Evatt be reined in. The insurgency
subsided only after the Big Three representatives admitted in public that they
would rather call the whole thing off than limit the veto. An American delegate
dramatized the point by ripping up a piece of paper and saying that's what would
happen to the Charter if the veto power was curtailed.
Though the veto
challenge failed, it established Evatt as a leading spokesman for what were then
called the "small nations." ("Small", I need hardly note,
referred to their clout and not their size.) Evatt devoted most of his time at
the podium to argue that the plan for collective security could not be effective
unless it had a foundation in economic and social justice, especially full employment.
He told the delegates that, "The great threat to human freedom we have been
combating for five years arose out of and was made possible by an environment
dominated by unemployment and poverty." And he predicted that the key issues
in the postwar era would be economic. Broad support for that view led to the adoption
of an Australian proposal that the UN Charter should list among its purposes the
promotion of "higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions
of economic and social progress and development." Australia's efforts also
led to strengthening the Economic and Social Council, upgrading it from what Evatt
called a "discussion group on economics" to a "principal organ"
of the UN alongside the Security Council.
Evatt has often been credited
with having shown the less powerful countries that they could exert great influence
when they acted together. But on the one issue that produced the most unity among
the small nations at San Francisco, he remained in the background. That was the
Latin-American led initiative to include the protection of human rights among
the purposes of the UN. The reactions of the major powers to that idea ranged
from outright hostility on the part of the Soviet Union and colonial powers like
France and Britain to lack of enthusiasm on the part of the United States. Evatt's
silence has been chalked up by his biographers to his concern about the Australian
relationship to Papua and New Guinea. But in mid-conference, when the first photographs
from the newly liberated concentration camps in Europe began to arrive, the opposition
to human rights references melted away. Principles of human rights were inserted
into the UN Charter in seven places, and President Truman expressed the sentiments
of many when he expressed the hope that the UN would soon produce an international
bill of rights.
By all accounts, Evatt's performance at San Francisco
seems to have represented the high point of his controversial career. At the end
of the conference, the New York Times paid him this tribute: "When Dr. Evatt
came here, he was a virtually unknown second-string delegate, with the background
of a professor and a Labour politician. He leaves, recognized as the most brilliant
and effective voice of the Small Powers, a leading statesman for the world's conscience,
the man who was not afraid to force liberalization of the Charter, and who had
sense enough not to press his threat so far as to break up the conference."
Harry Truman, upon signing the Charter, paid Evatt the compliment of stealing
his theme song. "Experience has shown," said Truman, "how deeply
the seeds of war are planted by economic rivalry and by social injustice."
Economic and social cooperation, he went on, are "part of the very heart
of this compact."
The vision championed by the Australian delegation
at San Francisco was, of course, highly compatible with the spirit of Roosevelt's
New Deal and Truman's Fair Deal. Those ideas would soon have an important influence
on the Marshall plan for economic recovery in Europe — and on the drafting
of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which I now turn.
The Drafting of the UDHR, 1947-48
One of the
first acts of the new UN was to instruct its 18-member Human Rights Commission,
chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, to draw up a set of principles of human decency
that could serve as goals to which all member states would pledge themselves to
aspire. The idea was to create a kind of yardstick by which every country could
measure its own and others' progress.
Now, as you may imagine, that
was not an easy task, for the UN even then was a highly diverse organization.
The project presupposed that there are a few common standards that can and should
be accepted by people of all nations and cultures. But no one was really sure
whether any rights could be said to be universal or, if so, what they might be.
So the UN asked a group of well-known philosophers — including several from
non-Western countries — to conduct an investigation into whether there were
any principles that were in fact widely shared among diverse cultural and religious
traditions. In due course, the philosophers reported that — somewhat to their
surprise — the lists of principles they received from all over the world
were remarkably similar (although not always formulated as "rights").
The experience of the statespersons on the Human Rights Commission was similar
— in the sense that they had relatively little difficulty coming to agreement
on a short list of political, civil, social and economic rights. (Thanks to the
persistence of Mrs. Street and her fellow members of the UN's first Commission
on the Status of Women, the drafters made clear that all these rights belong to
women as well as to men.)
Now, when I say that there was relatively
little disagreement over what rights should be included, I do not mean to imply
that all was sweetness and light in the drafting process. Far from it. But where
controversies flared up was mainly over how and by whom the rights should be implemented.
The Australian member of the drafting sub-committee, Col. William Roy Hodgson,
was chief among those who wanted the Commission to propose mechanisms for enforcement.
He pushed hard for the establishment of some sort of international tribunal where
individuals could file complaints, or, alternatively, for amending the U.N. Charter
to include binding rights commitments, or at the very least for a covenant to
make the declaration legally enforceable.
Hodgson, a veteran of Gallipoli,
was by all accounts very knowledgeable about international relations, but perhaps
not cut out for diplomacy. He was described this way in a confidential U.S. State
Department memo: "Col. Hodgson's extremely critical attitude towards most
foreign countries is said to make it difficult for him to give a proper representation
of their affairs to the Australian Government, and his cynical attitude towards
foreigners reportedly makes his dealings with other missions unsatisfactory. He
has a peppery aggressive manner that seems to be aggravated by consumption of
small amounts of alcohol. However, his blustering and provocative approach is
said often to hide a very thorough knowledge of the question under consideration."
Hodgson's almost exclusive focus on enforcement mechanisms may have made him a
man ahead of his time, but it alienated the Americans, the British and the Soviets,
and tended to lessen his effectiveness in Commission discussions.
most heated arguments in those discussions involved the social and economic rights.
It is a common misconception in the United States today that those rights were
put in the UDHR as a concession to the Soviets. The fact is, however, that they
had strong support across the board. After all, rights to a minimum standard of
living, to work, to social security in the event of unemployment or disability,
to form and join unions, and to education were already part of the legal landscape
in the industrialized countries. Eleanor Roosevelt did no more than state the
principles of her late husband's New Deal program when she said the US government
"favored the inclusion of economic and social rights in the Declaration,
because no personal liberty can exist without economic security and independence."
The most ardent advocates of these rights were not the Soviets, but the Latin
Americans. In fact, one of the principal models for the Universal Declaration
was the draft Pan-American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (later
known as the Bogota Declaration). That document — the world's first international
rights declaration — had in turn been influenced to some extent by Catholic
social thought. That is why certain verbal formulations in the UN Declaration
have a familiar ring to persons acquainted with the social encyclicals. For example:
the use of the word "person" rather than "individual"; the
emphasis on human "dignity"; the affirmation of the worker's right to
just remuneration for himself and his family; the right of the family to "protection
by society and the state"; the prior right of parents to choose the education
of their children; and the provision that motherhood and childhood are entitled
to "special care and assistance."
By the 1940s, those ideas
had found their way into the legal systems of many Latin American and continental
European countries — via the programs of Christian Democratic and Christian
Social political parties, and Christian labor organizations.
of the Latin American draft made it an appealing resource for the drafters of
the UDHR: (1st) It was based on cross-national research. (2nd) It was a prime
example of the trend in modern constitutions to combine "first generation"
political and civil liberties with "second generation" rights relating
to social justice. And (3rd) it resonated with non-Western traditions by emphasizing
the social dimension of human personhood and that rights are subject to duties
and limitations in favor of the common good. In other words, it provided a model
of how to avoid extremes of individualism or collectivism. And that, in turn,
helped the UN framers to secure a broad cross-national consensus.
the only countries that balked on the social and economic provisions were the
members of the Soviet bloc. Their main objection was to the language providing
that the rights in question would be implemented "in accordance with the
[political] organization and [economic] resources" of each state. The reference
to "organization" meant that countries could meet their obligations
through private as well as public means. That was important to representatives
of liberal democracies who were concerned not to dampen private initiative or
to give too much power to the State. It also reflected the view that it is necessary
for different countries to be able to experiment with different methods of reducing
unemployment and achieving better standards of living. As Mrs. Roosevelt put it,
"No one as yet seems to know quite how to do this without a degree of planning
which will be considered too restrictive for freedom."
was unacceptable to the Soviets who wanted to specify that the State must be the
exclusive protector of these rights. They also objected to the provision that
implementation of the social and economic rights would be in accordance with each
state's "resources." That language was important to representatives
of developing countries like Egypt and India. But to the Soviets it seemed to
imply that these rights were less important than political and civil rights —
even though the Declaration expressly said they were "indispensable to human
In the end, when the Declaration was approved by the UN
General Assembly without a single dissenting vote on December 10, 1948, the Soviet
bloc countries abstained. The only other abstainers were South Africa and, ominously,
Saudi Arabia, which alone among nine predominantly Muslim nations, objected to
the articles on religious freedom and women's rights. Presiding over the General
Assembly on that historic night, incidentally, was Herbert Evatt.
the time, supporters of human rights were of different minds about the Declaration's
worth and prospects. Many, like Eleanor Roosevelt, regarded it as a milestone
in the history of freedom — on a par with the great eighteenth century declarations.
To others, like Col. Hodgson, it seemed to be mainly a collection of pious phrases
— meaningless without courts, policemen and armies to back them up.
But almost immediately upon its adoption, the Declaration showed that a non-binding
document can exert influence. For one thing, it became the principal model for
the many countries that were adopting new constitutions in the post-war years.
The Declaration also served as a major rhetorical rallying point for independence
movements in colonialized countries — and for groups that were seeking to
train the searchlight of publicity on serious rights violations in various parts
of the world.
Another place where the Declaration found a warm reception
was the Holy See. In the fall of 1948, when the Declaration was being debated
by the UN in Paris, the papal nuncio in that city, one Angelo Roncalli, took a
keen interest. Later, as Pope John XXIII, he surprised observers by the extent
to which he adopted the modern language of rights as part of a largely successful
effort to make the Church's social teachings intelligible to "all men and
women of good will." It was a case of reciprocal influence, in the sense
that one tributary to the Declaration had been Christian social thought —
the fruit of the Church's own reflections on the Enlightenment, the eighteenth
century revolutions, socialism, and the labor question in the light of Scripture,
tradition, and her own experience with human strengths and frailties.
With such a start, who knows what might have come of the international human rights
project if the Cold War had not intervened? But it did intervene, and wrought
havoc with the principle of interdependence of fundamental rights. The US emphasized
the political and civil rights, while the Soviet bloc championed the social and
economic provisions. What the framers had joined together the two super-powers
With the end of the Cold War, there was a veritable explosion
of interest in international human rights. But by that time the habit of playing
pick and choose was well entrenched, and the social and economic rights did not
figure on the agenda of any major human rights organization. If you've been following
your program, this brings me to part three — the contemporary scene, and
what I call:
3. The Deconstruction of
Over the past decade, the UDHR has come
under assault from a number of directions.
In some parts of the world,
there has been a move to reject the idea of universal rights altogether. Thus,
when citizens in some African and Asian countries began to accuse their governments
of violating the rights that belong to them as human beings, authoritarian leaders
claimed that the Declaration did not reflect African or Asian values. In the Muslim
world, the rise of political Islam brought charges that the Declaration was nothing
but a "western" document (even though distinguished Muslim thinkers
had participated actively in its preparation).
Another type of assault
was mounted from within the West itself. There, human rights groups continued
the Cold War practice of selectively promoting the parts of the Declaration they
favored while ignoring others. To make matters worse, many rights activists lost
sight of the fact that "universality" to the Declaration's framers did
not mean uniformity. The framers expected, rather, that its principles could be
brought to life in different cultures in a legitimate variety of ways (so long
as none of the principles were left out).
But as advocacy groups multiplied
and became more specialized, some acted as though their favorite rights trumped
all others. The United Nations, with its remoteness from public scrutiny and democratic
accountability, became especially attractive to groups whose programs had trouble
passing muster in ordinary political processes in the liberal democracies.
I did not realize the degree to which the Declaration was under open attack from
such groups until I attended the UN Women's Conference in Beijing in 1995. The
purpose of that conference was to put the final touches on a document meant to
serve as a guide for the improvement of the status of women. In keeping with UN
practice, the conference draft contained many cross-references to the parent of
all such documents, the 1948 Declaration.
One might have expected those
cross-references to be non-controversial. But a full week of the two-week conference
was consumed with debate over the efforts of a European-led coalition to delete
references to the guarantee of religious freedom; the protection of the family
and motherhood; and the parents' prior right concerning education.
reason the Europeans wanted to eliminate those principles, apparently, was that
they were seen as obstacles to a set of new sexual and reproductive rights which
the coalition hoped to have recognized as universal rights. Now, UN procedures
contemplate that the canon of human rights may be amended from time to time, but
they establish a very solemn process for doing that. The Europeans, whether by
ignorance or design, were trying to turn that process on its head. Rather than
consulting widely to find out which values are so deeply grounded as to justify
promulgating them as universal rights, the effort here was to try to get their
own agenda items declared universal so that they could then be imposed on the
Even more startling was the fact that the Europeans
in most cases were going against their own legal systems. As a legal comparatist,
I recognized that provisions they were trying to delete were identical to constitutional
provisions in most of their home countries. During the first week, I visited the
heads of several delegations and asked them whether they really meant to attack
their own constitutions. Finally, after getting no reply, my delegation sent a
press release to the major European newspapers asking whether the positions the
European delegates were taking in Beijing really represented official policy or
public sentiment at home. Within 24 hours after we publicized what was going on,
the Europeans agreed to let the cross-references stand.
But by that time,
they had used up half the conference. Which brings me to what was most disappointing
about the behavior of the Europeans. The Beijing conference was announced as a
conference on three topics that Herbert Evatt and other founders of the UN saw
as intimately connected: equality, development, and peace. But because the proceedings
were dominated by first-world agendas, painfully little attention was paid to
development or to the situations of women and girls in poor countries.
The Beijing conference was an illustration of how susceptible international institutions
are to capture by special interests. Mrs. Jessie Street, to her credit, foresaw
this long ago when she wrote in her memoir, "I do not suppose there is a
more vulnerable spot in the world for the operation of pressure groups than the
headquarters of the UN." Even today, we know very little about the agendas
and the financial backing of the non-governmental organizations that swarm about
the UN and its agencies. But since virtually of them are North American or North
European-based, the charge of "Western" cultural imperialism has become
one that cannot be easily dismissed — even though it is often made in bad
That point has not escaped the attention of Nobel-Prize winning
economist Amartya Sen. Professor Sen, a native of Calcutta who has devoted much
of his career to combating inequality and world hunger, has criticized international
policy makers for "giving priority to their own ideas" and for exhibiting
"a dangerous tendency to treat people in poor countries, not as reasonable
beings, [or] allies faced with a common problem, but as impulsive and uncontrolled
sources of great social harm, in need of strong discipline."
Sen wrote those words in 1994, the dangers he warned of have increased. Consider,
for example, CNN founder Ted Turner's much-publicized billion dollar "gift"
to the U.N. in 1997. Many people in developing countries rejoiced when Mr. Turner
announced that his donation was to help "the poorest of the poor." It
soon appeared, however, that the funds would be disbursed only upon approval by
Turner's appointee, a former State Department official named Timothy Wirth. Mr.
Wirth is best known as an advocate of aggressive population control — so
aggressive that he even praised China's coercive one-child-per-family policy as
"very, very effective high-investment family planning." Turner's billion-dollar
gesture thus looks less like a gift than a take-over bid aimed at U.N. agencies
with privileged access to populations deemed by Wirth and Turner to be in need
Add to this that many NGOs have been deeply influenced
by simplistic attitudes toward rights that gained currency in the United States
in the 1960s and 70s — the tendency to think of rights without individual
or social responsibilities, to tout one's favorite rights as absolute while ignoring
others; and to ignore the relation of rights to constitutional government and
the rule of law. Those attitudes are profoundly inconsistent with — and potentially
destructive of — the balanced vision of the UDHR.
In sum, the post-Cold
War era has been a time of testing for the human rights project — to the
point where one might say of the Universal Declaration what Abraham Lincoln once
said of the Declaration of Independence: "It has proved a stumbling block
to tyrants, and ever will, unless brought into contempt by its pretended friends."
And this brings me to Part IV of these remarks:
4. Hodgson's Choice and Evatt's Enigma
choice in the Human Rights Commission was to devote most of his energy to a losing
battle for international enforcement mechanisms. With hindsight, we know that
he was overly pessimistic in his view that human rights would be meaningless without
such mechanisms. The most dramatic advances in human rights in later years —
the fall of apartheid in South Africa and the collapse of the East European totalitarian
regimes — owed more to the power of ideas carried far and wide by activists
and modern communications than to the many legally binding covenants and treaties
that were then in force.
But the persistence of appalling human rights
violations has kept alive the hope of Hodgson and others that some way could be
found to address these problems through international law. The difficulty, however,
is that international legal remedies work best where they are least needed, that
is, where there is fairly wide acceptance of their legitimacy, as in the case
of the European Court of Human Rights.
The most intractable enforcement
problems arise just where the worst violations occur — where rogue nations
are the rights violators, or where anarchy prevails owing to civil war or other
conflicts between groups. This raises the question of whether Evatt, Mrs. Roosevelt,
and others were right to argue that the best approach is to try to reduce the
frequency of atrocities by addressing their underlying causes —
which they believed to reside in unjust discrimination, poverty, and lack of economic
opportunity. That conviction was embodied in the Universal Declaration's insistence
on the link between freedom and social justice, and on the relation of both to
peace. But here is the enigma — does that theory still hold in the post-Cold
War world where so much conflict seems to be ideological, religious, or ethnic
I think the only honest answer one can give is that we don't
know how economic factors enter into that deadly mix of hopelessness and resentment
because we haven't tried very hard to remedy economic conditions in the poorest
parts of the world. The parts of the Universal Declaration that speak to economic
and social justice are almost completely ignored today — even by the major
human rights organizations. It is a moral scandal that the poorest people and
countries are being increasingly marginalized in the global economic order just
when, perhaps for the first time in human history, we have recognized that poverty
is not necessary, not fixed in the order of things.
It seems appropriate
in this lecture named for Dom Helder Camara to point out that over the years the
most consistent and vigorous institutional defender of all of the Declaration's
principles has been the Catholic Church. At a time when those in affluent nations
seem increasingly to be washing their hands of poor countries and peoples, it
is often the Church, and only the Church, that continues to lift up before the
world the moral imperative of addressing poverty. In contrast to the well-intentioned
New Dealers of old, or the not so well intentioned Ted Turners of the present,
she does not treat poor people as problems to be managed and solved. Rather, she
exhorts us to view the disadvantaged as persons whose human potential deserves
to be realized. She does not prescribe specific policies or programs, but rather
entreats us to use our God-given intelligence. We already know a good deal about
how poverty has been conquered, wealth created, and the formerly poor empowered
to unleash their creativity. But we need to know more, and to apply what we learn.
We are in a better position today than in any other period of human history to
make good on the double pledge the nations made in December 1948: "to promote
social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom."
It seems to me, therefore, that the most pressing task for friends of human rights
today is to re-unite those two halves of the divided soul of the human rights
project — its commitment to personal freedom and its sense of one human family
for which we all bear a common responsibility. No one has put it better than Pope
John Paul II in his speech to the UN on its fiftieth anniversary, where he said:
"Inspired by the example of all those who have taken the risk of freedom,
can we not recommit ourselves also to taking the risk of solidarity —
and thus the risk of peace?"
It seems to me that how we
respond to that challenge will determine, to no small degree, the course of the
human future in these dangerous times.
Ann Glendon "Human Rights for All." Caritas Helder Camara Lecture
Reprinted with permission of Caritas Australia.
Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University. She writes
and teaches in the fields of human rights, comparative law, constitutional law,
and legal theory. In March 2004, Mary Ann Glendon was appointed by Pope John Paul
II to head the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences which guides the
Catholic Church's social policies. She is the author of A
World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
(Random House, 2001), A
Nation Under Lawyers: How the Crisis in the Legal Profession is Transforming American
Society (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), Rights
Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (Free Press, 1991), and
(edited with David Blankenhorn) Seedbeds
of Virtue: Sources
of Competence, Character, and Citizenship in American Society (Madison
Copyright © 2002 Caritas