Drafting History

  1. Drafting History - Introduction
  2. Overview of Process and Key Documents
  3. Accounts of Drafting Process
  4. First Session of the Human Rights Commission
  5. First Session of the Drafting Committee
  6. Second Session of the Human Rights Commission
  7. Second Session of the Drafting Committee
  8. Third Session of the Human Rights Committee
  9. Third Committee of the General Assembly
  10. Plenary Session of the Third General Assembly Session
  11. Reference

The Human Rights Commission, activated in January 1947, had members from 18 nations, appointed by ECOSOC: Australia, Belgium, Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR), Chile, China, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Lebanon, Panama, Philippine Republic, United Kingdom, United States of America, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Uruguay, and Yugoslavia. Its first session met in January and February of 1947.

As soon as the delegates began to discuss the machinery for drafting an international bill of rights, the issue arose as to whether to entrust the drafting of the Declaration to a committee or the Secretariat. It was decided that “the Chairman of the Commission on Human Rights, together with the Vice-Chairman and the Rapporteur, undertake, with the assistance of the Secretariat, the task of formulating a preliminary draft international bill of human rights.” These executives, being Eleanor Roosevelt, Peng-chun Chang and Charles Habib Malik, had one meeting, which John P. Humphrey, the newly appointed Director of the Secretariat’s Division on Human Rights, also attended. Humphrey reported that “it was typical of Mrs. Roosevelt that she would want the drafting committee to begin work at once and he invited her two colleagues and me to meet her in her Washington Square apartment on the Sunday following the adjournment,” at which meeting Humphrey was asked to prepare a draft of the Declaration. That meeting took place on February 17, which was a good day for some tea and philosophizing. Writes Humphrey:

“[Peng-chun] Chang [China] and [Charles Habib] Malik [Lebanon] were too far apart in their philosophical approaches to be able to work together on a text. There was a good deal of talk, but we were getting nowhere. Then, after still another cup of tea, Chang suggested that I put my other duties aside for six months and study Chinese philosophy, after which I might be able to prepare a text for the committee. This was his way of saying that Western influences might be too great, and he was looking at Malik as he spoke. He had already, in the Commission, urged the importance of historical perspective. There was some more discussion mainly of a philosophical character, Mrs. Roosevelt saying little and continuing to pour tea.”(5)

Soon after he was asked, John Humphrey started to write various drafts of the Declaration. He had a mimeographed draft ready by March 15. This last draft is the same as the one that he distributed at the first meeting of the Drafting Committee in early June 1947. John Humphrey had borrowed freely from a collection of drafts he had before him. He later said that “the best of the texts from which [he] worked was the one prepared by the American Law Institute,”(6) which Panama had introduced in San Francisco. Other bills that influenced him were the ones submitted by the Inter-American Juridical Committee and Hersch Lauterpacht. This scavenging for the best articles from the various drafts made for an inclusive first draft and explains, among other things, why there are social, economic, and cultural rights in the Declaration. Though he frequently used the drafts he had with him, it seems equally clear that his draft was Humphrey's own creative mixture and molding of the options before him. His draft was both the first and the basic draft of the Universal Declaration, first in time and basic in that it became the basis for all further deletions and additions.

Some of the delegations that at first had supported the decision to delegate the drafting to their executive committee had second thoughts. The USSR delegate started the revolt by objecting to the bill being drafted by what he called "a small group of experts" (AC.1/2/p.2). The delegates from Canada, Chile, Czechoslovakia, and France joined him. As a result of all this dissatisfaction the Council voted on a proposal to enlarge the drafting group from three to eight members, coming from Australia, Chile, China, France, Lebanon, the USSR, the UK and the US. The enlargement of the Drafting Committee from the three executives to eight representatives made the drafting process more inclusive and enhanced the universality of the Declaration.

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Peter Danchin, Columbia University