Would the UN's human rights milestone of 1948 even be possible today?


National Post, 20 December 2018

Seventy years after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the fight for freedom and social justice continues

Last month, we marked the centennial of the end of the Great War. Last week, we marked the 70th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In the intervening 30 years, between 1918 and 1948, human-rights violations of unimaginable scale took place, with the rise of totalitarianism and the genocidal brutality of the Second World War, in both the Pacific and European theatres, and above all in the Shoah. That the UN could pass the UDHR just a few years after WWII ended is one of the most remarkable achievements of statecraft in history.

The UDHR is all the more remarkable because it did not emerge from a single legal tradition, either the Anglo-American or continental constitutional tradition. It could not reflect merely a single cultural, national or religious tradition. It had to address complex political realities, including the newfound division of the world into Cold War blocs, the rise of independence movements in the global south (India), and the stirrings of revolution elsewhere (China). That a drafting commission could even be struck was an achievement, let alone that it could shepherd the project to conclusion.

The UDHR would be approved on Dec. 10, 1948, without a single dissenting vote. Eight countries abstained: Byelorussia (now known as Belarus), Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Yugoslavia. That the abstentions were limited to the Soviet bloc, the Saudis and apartheid-era South Africa was an enormous achievement. And that the opponents felt that they could abstain, but not vote against, was also significant. It is worth noting that by the 50th anniversary in 1998, the only abstaining country that remained unchanged from 1948 was Saudi Arabia. The others had converted or — in the case of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia — ceased to exist.

Suitably enough for such an unprecedented project, the commission was chaired by the remarkable and unconventional Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of FDR, the wartime president. It takes nothing away from subsequent First Ladies — including Hillary Clinton — to note that Mrs. Roosevelt generations ago managed an achievement more important and more enduring than any other.

The UDHR has some autobiographical significance for me. In 1988, there was a student essay competition in Alberta to mark the 40th anniversary of the UDHR. In the 12th grade at the time, I entered and won, the prize being a trip to New York for the celebrations at the UN as part of the Canadian delegation. Two things stayed with me from that time, namely the enduring importance of human rights, which led me to study intensely the American civil rights movement, Solidarity in Poland, and even now keeps me attentive to fundamental liberties in such places as China and Saudi Arabia. And I learned at age 17 that writing could be a way of seeing the world, beginning with my first-ever trip to New York City.

Later in life, I would come to know and work with Mary Ann Glendon, the Harvard Law School professor who literally wrote the book on how the UDHR came to be, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A leading scholar in the field of religious liberty and other human rights, Prof. Glendon’s impact on my thinking has been an enduring blessing, as it was a grace to have a mentor of both outstanding intellect and devotion, reason and faith, law and theology.

“By expressly including women, by alluding to freedom from want, and by evoking the UN Charter’s commitment to better standards of life, the (UDHR) signals from the outset that this document is not just a ‘universalization’ of the traditional 18th-century ‘rights of man,’ but part of a new ‘moment’ in the history of human rights,” wrote Prof. Glendon. “In this respect, the Universal Declaration belongs to the family of post-World War II rights instruments that attempted to graft social justice onto the trunk of the tree of liberty.”

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