Fifty years after its proclamation, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, has called the Universal Declaration the yardstick by which we measure human progress. Nadine Gordimer has described it as the essential document, the touchstone, the creed of humanity that surely sums up all other creeds directing human bevahavior. For Columbia Law Professor, Louis Henkin, the Universal Declaration has the claim to be one of the most important international instruments of the twentieth century, second only, perhaps, to the United Nations Charter. It is the holy writ to which all pay homage, even if sometimes the homage of hypocrisy.
What has been the influence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on international and domestic law, politics and affairs over the last half century How and why have international human rights emerged, survived and even flourished as a shared ideology in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Professor Henkin has suggested that while the power of the human rights idea is difficult to weigh and appraise, answers to these questions can be found in national and international political forces notably in the actions of the United Nations, US influence, the Cold War and its end, the influence of the Third World and of regional organizations, and also what has been termed the mobilizing of shame. In each of these areas and relationships, it is possible to trace and identify the impact of the Declaration.
In attempting to do just that, Henkin identifies four principal achievements of the Declaration over the last fifty years. First, the Declaration helped to convert a discredited philosophical idea natural rights into a dominant political ideology. Second, it defined a vague colloquialism human rights (which was tersely described, but not defined, in the UN Charter)in an authoritative code of thirty articles of fundamental rights. Third, it universalized human rights, promoting a constitutional ideology accepted in a few countries into a standard of constitutionalism for all countries. And fourth, it internationalized human rights, transforming matters that had been subject to exclusive domestic jurisdictions sovereignty into matters of international concern, putting them permanently on the international agenda, and providing the foundation for a sturdy edifice of international norms and institutions.
In this sense, then, the Declaration has realized its original purpose of establishing a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations and, as the first instrument of international human rights, has become the source and inspiration of the international law of human rights, which in turn has brought about important international human rights institutions.
Accordingly, Henkin suggests that you can trace a path from the Declaration to historic developments after the Second World war, including to the end of colonialism and to the proliferation of new states; to the end of communism and the establishment of democracy as the prevailing ideology for the twenty first century; and even, albeit via a more circuitous route, to the greatest triumph of the international human rights movement the eradication of apartheid and the birth of a new democratic South Africa possessing a comprehensive constitutional Bill of Rights based significantly on the Universal Declaration.
The Drafting Process
Who was involved in drafting this remarkable and radical document and how can we explain its creation at this particlar point in history?
There are in fact competing historical accounts of the drafting process. Some see the Roosevelts (principally Eleanor Roosevelt, but also Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a result of his famous our Freedoms address) as the molders and shapers of the human rights story. Others see René Cassin, the great French constitutional scholar, as the principal architect. There is also debate as to how much influence small states played and what role NGOs assumed in the debates at the then newly created UN Commission on Human Rights.
While it is not clear which account is the most accurate, what is clear is that there were strong personalities involved. Recent scholarly investigations of the drafting process offer glimpses of this unique period of time recalling incidents such as when, in the February of 1947, Charles Malik (a Lebanese Thomist philosopher) and PC Chang (a Chinese Confucian philosopher) were in ardent debate over the metaphsyical bases of human rights in Eleanor Roosevelt's Washington Square Apartment as John Humphrey of Canada and Roosevelt herself looked on. In the end, these philosophical differences were not resolved and do not appear on the face of the Decalaration which adopts instead a more pragmatic approach to the basis of human rights, settling on the general concept of "human dignity."
Peter Danchin, Columbia University