Given the rivalries and violence that divide the global community today, it is hard to imagine that on December 10, 1948, the nations of the world approved, almost unanimously, a detailed list of fundamental rights that every human on the planet should enjoy.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the most sweeping such statement ever endorsed on a worldwide basis, opened by asserting, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It proceeded with 30 articles summarizing the things to which everyone would be entitled in a world of genuine peace and justice.
In the immediate aftermath of two horrifying world wars, not a single member state of the newly created United Nations dared oppose the Declaration, though several abstained on the final vote. That so many of the rights remain unachieved on its 70th anniversary testifies to the boundless idealism of the document’s drafters.
The Declaration forbid slavery and servitude, forced marriage, arbitrary arrest, and any interference with privacy and correspondence. Everyone was said to have the right to own property, claim asylum, express opinions, and be educated.
By calling for an end to discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, or ideology, the Declaration foreshadowed struggles for civil and political rights that were yet to come. Articles calling for equal pay for equal work and universal health care were among those on which the United States itself still falls short.
The document was largely the work of Eleanor Roosevelt, in her role as chair of the U.N. commission responsible for writing it. The creation of an organization that would unite the nations of the world had been a dream of her late husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, and she saw the elaboration of an international bill of rights as crucial to that work.
“We stand on the threshold of a great event, both in the life of the United Nations and of mankind,” she said in an address to a U.N. General Assembly meeting in Paris on December 9. The proposed declaration, she said, would serve “as a common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations.” Its passage the next day by a vote of 48 to 0, with eight abstentions, brought a standing ovation.
The most ambitious feature of the Declaration was its claim to be applicable across all cultures, political systems, and religious traditions throughout the world. It was a thoroughly secular product, written without religious references and adopted by governments in the name of man, not God.
Not surprisingly, the Declaration stirred some controversy at the time, despite its adoption without overt opposition, and resistance to its sweep has only increased in the last seven decades.
Among the eight countries that abstained on the final vote were the Soviet Union and the five Soviet bloc states that were U.N. members at the time. South Africa, whose apartheid regime could not stomach any declaration condemning racial discrimination, also abstained. So did Saudi Arabia, claiming some rights listed in the Declaration were not consistent with Islamic law.
Some U.S. conservatives made clear their own unease with the Declaration, seeing its assertion of broad economic rights as a step toward socialism. The Soviets had the opposite objection to the Declaration, arguing that it favored individual over collective rights and undermined national sovereignty.
A western construct?
To be sure, the Declaration was rooted intellectually in western thought. In promoting the draft document, Eleanor Roosevelt likened it to the Magna Carta, the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The United Nations at the time, in fact, was still dominated by western interests. Africa remained largely under colonial rule, and British rule in South Asia had barely ended.
In later years, lawyers who brought up the Universal Declaration or related international covenants in their advocacy for human rights sometimes found themselves on the defensive in non-western countries.
“At the beginning of my career, there was much resistance to my work abroad,” says Asma Uddin, a human rights lawyer and senior scholar at the Freedom Forum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center. “The common discourse I heard was that I was somehow an agent for western colonialism.”
On its anniversary, however, the Universal Declaration is getting a robust defense.
“The idea that [the Declaration] is some western construct that is unjustly imposed on the rest of the world … is idiotic,” says Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and former chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“The Declaration sets forth at the very beginning that the foundation of all of our rights is the profound and equal dignity of each and every member of the human family,” George argues. “It is not the gift of kings or potentates or presidents or parliaments, but one that is inherent.”
The most significant objections to the Declaration have been in the Islamic world and focus mainly on the articles concerning marriage, family, and religious freedom. Saudi Arabia’s decision in 1948 to abstain from the final vote on the Universal Declaration stemmed primarily from its disagreement with the Declaration’s affirmation of a right to change religion, a move some Islamic scholars view as apostasy. Similarly, some Muslims insist that freedom of expression cannot be taken so far as to justify insulting the Prophet Mohammed, which may be considered blasphemy.
In 1990, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, comprising more than 50 Muslim-majority states, answered the Universal Declaration with a version of its own, the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam. The Cairo Declaration affirmed Islamic law (sharia) as its sole source and notably omitted any reference to a right to change religion.
Recent years, however, have brought new efforts to reconcile Islam with the Universal Declaration and other international human rights instruments. Scholars in Pakistan have mounted a challenge to anti-blasphemy laws through the organization Engage Pakistan, arguing that the blasphemy punishments being imposed are not genuinely rooted in Islamic scripture.
“The work is as fundamental as just going back to the traditional Islamic texts that were cited [as supporting] punishments for blasphemy, and saying, ‘Hey, if you go back to the text, it actually says something quite different,'” says Asma Uddin, herself a Muslim from a Pakistani family. “Whether it’s scholars or activists, they’re coming from a traditional perspective. It’s not some sort of progressive or reform interpretation of Islam. It’s going straight to the classical sources and finding evidence there.”
On that point, Princeton’s Robert George is in full agreement.
“It is a defamation of Islam to suppose that it cannot embrace a concept of human dignity like we have in the [Universal] Declaration, or that it must reject the core rights articulated in the text,” George says. “I would say the same is true of the great traditions of Buddhism, of Hinduism, of Taoism, of Confucianism, and so forth.”
The struggle to promote any worldwide human rights agreement these days, however, must deal with growing nationalism in many countries and the notion that anything smacking of “globalism” is suspect. Identity politics in many cases draws strength from ethnic or religious conflict.
“Those are the lines that these political actors are trying to draw,” says Uddin. “By conceding that maybe there isn’t a basis for conflict, it weakens them.”