Preamble section 7:
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Drafting History

  1. The Inclusiveness of the Drafting Process
  2. The Problem of the Colonies
  3. Universality and the UNESCO study

The Problem of the Colonies

In 1914 Lenin calculated that "more than half of the world's population lived in colonies, which together covered ¾ of the world's territory," a calculation that was still roughly correct at the end of the 1940's.2 This fits the estimate that Philippe De La Chapelle made of the United Nations membership at the time the Declaration was adopted: "North and South America with 21 countries represented 36% of the total, Europe with 16 countries 27%, Asia with 14 countries 24%, Africa with 4 countries a mere 6%, and the South Sea Islands with three countries 5%".3 This reveals that the continents of Africa and Asia were grossly under-represented. And that is where in the 1940's some of the most prominent drafting nations still had their colonial empires. (Morsink, 97)

The Declaration was written at a time when these empires had just started to break up. Two of the most influential drafters, Malik from Lebanon and Romulo from the Philippines, were from countries that gained their independence in 1946. Syria also joined that year. In 1947 India, Burma, Pakistan, and in 1948 Ceylon gained their independence. Both India and Pakistan played an active role in the drafting process. The People's Republic of China was not established until 1949, meaning that the great talents of P.C. Chang, which helped shape the Declaration, were used on behalf of Chiang Kai-shek's fading government rather than to express the wishes of the new Communist regime. Today, having just passed the Declaration's fiftieth anniversary, the United Nations has three times the membership it had when the Declaration was adopted.

This tripling of the UN membership has legitimately fed the suspicion that the process by which the Declaration came into being was badly flawed. According to some scholars, the damage done back then is so great that the document has no real legitimacy outside the West. Adamania Pollis and Peter Schwab believe, for instance, that "to argue that human rights has a standing which is universal in character is to contradict [the] historical reality," which is that the 1945 San Francisco Conference at which the United Nations was created "was dominated by the West, and that the Universal Declaration was adopted at a time [1946-1948] when most Third World countries were still under colonial rule." (Pollis and Schwab, Human Rights, 4)

Although the deliberations about the Declaration began in the spring of 1946, the problems of the colonies did not arise until year and a half later in the winter of 1947. One would not expect the colonial powers to have raised the matter themselves, and they did not. The early drafts contained no reference at all to the colonies. The shift came with a new emphasis in Soviet policy.

There are in fact several implicit references to the colonies in the final text of the Declaration, and in particular in the Proclamation in Preamble clause 8. The USSR was the country that lobbied to get them included to ensure that the Declaration was a truly universal document. The operative paragraph in Preamble clause 8 recommended that the Declaration be observed "both among the peoples of the Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction." "Territories under their jurisdiction" is an oblique reference to the colonies administered by the metropolitan powers and was added upon the recommendation of the Egyptian delegate, Loufti. This phrase was much shorter and less threatening than the USSR proposal, which made an explicit reference to "trust and non-self-governing territories." The UK representative, Geoffrey Wilson, objected to the Soviet version because he was opposed "to the apparent discrimination made in the USSR text by especially mentioning the trust and non-self-governing territories." (SR77/ at p.12) His French colleague, Ordonneau, spelled out what Wilson only suggested, namely that there was no need to single out the colonies because he rejected the Soviet suggestion that "the populations of these territories did not enjoy the essential rights and freedoms on an equal footing with the population of the metropolitan territories." In the end, a Chinese proposal to insert the words "for all peoples" before "for all nations" in the operative recital in Preamble clause 8 was also adopted to include the colonies without mentioning them explicitly. (Morsink, 98)

See further the detailed discussion on the question of the colonies in the context of the second paragraph of Article 2 of the Universal Declaration.


2. V L Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism ( New York: International Publishers, 1943) chart at 80.
3. Philippe De La Chapelle, La Déclaration universelle des droits de l'homme et le catholicisme, Bibliothèque Constitutionelle et de Science Politique, tome 29 (Paris: Librairie Général de Droit et le Jurispudence, R. Pichon et R Durand-Auzias, Soufflot, 1967) at 44.

<<previous page next page>>

Peter Danchin, Columbia University