Review of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Friday, February 28th, 2014

After witnessing inhumane atrocities directed towards specific religious and ethnic groups during the Holocaust and the Second World War, humanitarians, religious figures, and political figures across the world were adamant about not enduring more of these hardships and “violations of human dignity” (Glendon, Loc 91). Consequently, the human rights project was initiated by the Allies of the United Nations to provide consolation to the countries and groups of people that had been significantly impacted by the World War. Thus, the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was started. As a whole the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “aimed at prevention” of violating or disregarding human rights (Glendon, Loc 111). However, the creators were posed with question of precisely what the document was protecting. With an early foundation of natural rights composed by previous philosophical thinkers, the writers believed the Declaration should contain civil, political, economic and social liberties.


The most influential drafters of the Universal Declaration included Eleanor Roosevelt, P.C. Chang, Charles Malik, René Cassin, and John Humphrey, whom represented various countries and cultures that seemed to be in constant opposition. The main two philosophical and ideological thinkers were Malik and Chang. In much of their debacle, the contention of theological ideas was ever apparent. However, both Chang and Malik provided important insights and opinions that reflected universality. Quoting Confucianism, Chang focused on the “spirit of brotherhood” and “two-man mindedness” (Glendon, Loc 2694; Loc 2619). These philosophies linked Eastern values with collectivism and Western ideology. Even with the numerous differences among countries, Chang reminded everyone that the Declaration was intended to be universal—a document that embodied all four corners of the world. In essence, Chang was able to close the gap between the ideals of the West and the East. In addition to Chang, Charles Malik focused on creating a universal document. He created an open forum for participation and discussion by all members involved in the writing of the Declaration. This open forum allowed for everyone to voice his/her opinions and differences. Thus, he was able to give each nation involved in the drafting a “sense of ownership” (Glendon, Loc 2650). Therefore, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could be seen as a collaboration of small and large nations with different political, economic, and social views.


Credit for the actual process of putting words on paper can be given to John Humphrey and René Cassin. Humphrey, a Canadian, was given the monumental task to produce a rough draft as a basis for discussion among the representatives. He produced “the most exhaustive documentation on the subject of human rights” which comprised “first-generation political and civil rights of rights to life, liberty, and property” and “second-generation economic and social rights of rights to work, education, and basic subsistence” (Glendon, Loc 1152). Humphrey’s work was a concrete starting point for the other key writers. Perhaps, the most important contribution from René Cassin was his “legislative” change of the Universal Declaration, especially to the Preamble (Glendon, Loc 1209). The addition of “continental legal terminology” gave the draft an affirmative and legitimate claim to declaring the rights of human beings (Glendon, Loc 1265). Furthermore, the words of the Preamble also helped diminish the gap between collectivist and individualistic views in order to establish an idea of universal human rights.


Another barrier to establishing universality for the rights in the Declaration was essentially due to the fight “between communism and capitalism” (Glendon, Loc 705). The writing of the Declaration was taking place during a volatile situation, the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union as the ring leaders. In addition, the United States was actively giving financial and military aid overseas to stop the spread of communism (e.g. Korean War and Vietnam War). Inevitably, this caused tension between the drafters of the Declaration. The Soviet Union saw the potentiality of the Declaration as “a threat to the principle of national sovereignty” (Glendon, Loc 1190). Thus, the Soviet Union was mostly concerned with the danger of an official document declaring the individual above the state. Therefore, the Soviet Union, along with the rest of the Eastern bloc, advocated for social and economic rights rather than civil and political rights. On the other hand, many Latin American countries and the United States greatly supported civil and political rights. To reconcile this debate, Eleanor Roosevelt proved to be the calming voice. In her appeal to the Commission, she voiced that all men should have the “freedom from want” (Glendon, Loc 148); this concept promoted that “men in need were not free men” (Glendon, Loc 2173). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights would only be complete with both first-generation civil and political rights and second-generation social and economic rights. Eleanor Roosevelt’s wise words produced the Declaration as it is today—one that included “rights to work, education, rest and leisure, and adequate standard of living” along with freedom of religion, assembly, and speech (Glendon, Loc 2154).


As world powers, the United States and the Soviet Union believed this declaration would not impact their statuses in international or domestic affairs. Due to this pressure, Roosevelt reinforced that the Declaration was not “self-executing” (Glendon, Loc 3541). As a result, the greatest struggle was the implementation of securing these human rights and the ratification of the Declaration by all nations. Two Covenants were created to help implement and protect the civil, political, economic, and social rights established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—one Covenant was dedicated to improving civil and political rights, while the other Covenant was for economic and social rights. However, the division proved to be a significant weakness. As suggested by Glendon, the separation of the rights into two Covenants failed to support the message that “one set of values could not long endure without the other” (Loc 3651). Furthermore, many nations opted to not ratify the Covenants, which showed the lack of authority of the Covenants. Although, the drafters were monumentally successful in the “promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms”, they failed to safeguard these rights as continuing acts of genocide and oppression occur such as the Rwanda Genocide and the Ukrainian protests (Glendon, Loc 3188).


Overall, I feel Mary Ann Glendon portrayed the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; it represented in entirety our “modern language of rights” (Glendon, Loc 132). However, even with a declaration that claims every human should be treated with dignity does not mean the world will abide, which Glendon implies in her discussion of the United Nations. Ultimately, I feel A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights depicts the importance of globalization and the need to continue the fight for guaranteeing rights for all peoples.