The drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was carried out primarily by the United Nations Human Rights Commission. The United Nations Charter states in Article 1(3) that one of the purposes of the United Nations is to
achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.
Further, Article 55 states that
With a view to the creation of conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, the United Nations shall promote: (c) universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.
In Article 56, all member states of the UN pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in cooperation with the Organization for the achievement of the purposes set forth in Article 55.
While the UN Charter made promotion of respect for human rights one of its key objectives, it did not define what the term human rights encompassed. Rather, in Article 68 it required the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to set up commissions in economic and social fields and for the promotion of human rights. Article 68 in fact makes the Human Rights Commission the only commission of the entire United Nations system that is mandated by the Charter. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is thus born out of the Charter references to human rights in the Preamble and in Articles 1, 55 and 56 and represents the attempt to define and explain what the Charter meant by the term human rights.
The Charter does not at any point mandate that an international bill of rights be written. While it mandated that a Commission on Human Rights be established, it left the matter of an international bill of rights for future work and negotiation. At the closing of the San Francisco Conference, the American president, Harry Truman, made this point explicit. Upon becoming president Truman had wholeheartedly taken over Franklin Roosevelts United Nations project. He praised the delegation for their single-minded focus on producing a charter for the new organization and promised that [u]nder this document we have good reasons to expect the framing of an international bill of rights, acceptable to all the nations involved. That bill of rights, Truman predicted, will be as much a part of international life as our own Bill of Rights is part of our Constitution. When the Human Rights Commission was established it was charged first of all to come up with a recommendation and report regarding an international bill of rights (E/248). The Commission on Human Rights, having been established and given the task to write an international bill of rights, worked on that project for two full years, from January 1947 to December 1948.
Finally, Article 62 of the United Nations Charter states that ECOSOC may make recommendations for the purpose of promoting respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. ECOSOC relied upon this power when it recommended on December 10, 1948 that the Third General Assembly of the United Nations adopt and proclaim the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Peter Danchin, Columbia University