The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a foundational, emancipatory document. The Inclusion Team will be posting information about the document in the run up to the 70th Anniversary on the 10th of December this year.

Article 1 All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

In many parts of the world and in many societies there are still people who believe that different people have separate rights, and even different ones. For example, the belief that people who are Black are more violent than White people and therefore should be policed in a different way, that only people of some sexual orientations should have the right to be married by religious institutions and the state, the belief that women should not be permitted an education and that it should be the reserve of men and so forth.

Who drafted the UDHR?

‘It was imperative that the peoples of the world should recognize the existence of a code of civilized behavior which would apply not only in international relations but also in domestic affairs.’ Begum Shaista Ikramullah, a member of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan and a delegate of the UN in 1948.

In general, when we refer to UDHR, people often picture Eleanor Roosevelt and a range of Western leaders at the time. However, Professor Susan Waltz argues that much of the content for UDHR was provided by people of all ethnicities. Many were committed to ensuring that atrocities experienced during the wars and under colonial rule would not continue to be justified. Significant additions were made by newly de-colonised states regarding slavery, discrimination, the rights of women, and the right to national self determination.

A global effort that focussed on everyone

Waltz points out, UDHR was a truly global effort, with delegates from non-Western states actually pushing to include more rights in the draft. For example, delegates from:

  • China, the Philippines, the UK, Australia and the USSR,  worked with their counterparts from Latin America to negotiate and articulate a list of socio-economic rights to be included in the declaration, resulting in the establishment of the right to food, clothing, shelter and medical care as well as social security, education and decent working conditions.
  • India, the Dominican Republic and Denmark defended gender equality and succeeded in replacing the phrase ‘all men’ with ‘all human beings.
  • The USSR ensured that phrases like ‘no one’ and ‘everyone’ were inserted into the text of nearly every article, stamping the declaration with the language of non-discrimination.
  • Egypt supplied phrasing for the preamble that most directly and unequivocally asserted the declaration’s universality, mandating that rights were to be upheld everywhere.

Some of the people involved

  • Ricardo Alfaro (former President of Panama) proposed the idea and first draft. It was taken up by many others including public intellectuals such as HG Wells.
  • Hansa Mehta of India was the key figure who ensured gender equality in the document.
  • Charles Malik of Lebanon a defender of human rights as a moral and political project.
  • Carlos Romulo of the Philippines argued that full rights should be given to the colonies.
  • John Humphrey of Canada was involved in the development of various human rights covenants and protected the division from a number of threats, including investigation by the staff for un-American activities and attempts to bring the human rights program to a standstill.
  • Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile focussed on ensuring that economic, social and cultural rights were included as inseparable from political and civil rights.
  • Peng Chung Chang of China  insisted, in the name of universalism, on the removal of all allusions to nature and God.
  • René Samuel Cassin of France whose tragic experiences of Nazi atrocities did not dent his belief in the universality of rights.