Nation & World

History of human rights declaration is reviewed at CGIS

5 min read

In September 1948, representatives of 18 nations at the newly minted United Nations were inspired by the tumult and horror of World War II to create a Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

In just three months, under the chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt, the document was ready. Its short preamble and 30 concise articles are the first global proclamation of universal human rights. The declaration was ratified on Dec. 10, 1948.

That signature event nearly 60 years ago has prompted a yearlong commemoration at Harvard of the UDHR. University-wide lectures, panels, for-credit classes, and symposia will explore the fate of the declaration, what it has done, what it has failed to do, and what it may yet inspire.

In a small Harvard seminar room last week (Sept. 24) at the Center for Government and International Studies on Cambridge Street, an audience of a few dozen listened to four experts discuss the history of the UDHR, how it came to be, and what its fate has been over six decades.

The event was sponsored by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, which this year on selected Wednesdays will sponsor eight such roundtables under the rubric of HIGHS — Harvard International and Global History Seminars.

Moderator David Armitage, Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History, called last week’s four panelists “a dream team of scholars” well poised for the task of looking back at the UDHR.

Ernest R. May, Charles Warren Professor of American History, saw the declaration as an anomaly for its time — an expression of peaceful sentiment created just as the Cold War was heating up. It was in 1948 that the Berlin Blockade divided East and West, and only two years before Winston Churchill had delivered his Iron Curtain speech. “How do you get this document,” May asked, “in these circumstances?”

That was one small question worth asking, said May, history adviser to the 9/11 Commission. Clamor for such a document reached a crescendo in 1945, he said, during lobbying at the San Francisco Conference, where the U.N. Charter was signed.

A larger question, said May, involves the “intellectual origins” of the UDHR. He turned his back on the idea that human rights is the same as the “divine justice” Sophocles dramatized 2,400 years ago in “Antigone.” May preferred more modern antecedents for the UDHR, including the American Declaration of Independence along with “Marxism and its variants.”

Noah Feldman, Bemis Professor of International Law at Harvard Law School, was grateful to May for providing the bigger picture, since he was going to look at a much smaller one — a single phrase within Article 18 of the UDHR. Feldman parsed “the strangeness” of the wording “freedom to change his religion or belief.”

The phrase suggests a “right to be free inwardly,” Feldman said, a concept that in 1948 some Islamic nations found unacceptable. In 1948, Saudi Arabia was one of eight countries that abstained from ratifying the declaration, which 48 nations signed.

Feldman traced the history of the Article 18 phrase to Charles Malik, a Lebanese Christian who in 1937 earned a Harvard Ph.D. in philosophy and who during draft talks in 1948 represented his native land. “The very essence of religion is to become, not to be,” is a sentiment Feldman attributes to Malik.

That’s an expression of private liberty, but it is also an example of how just a few words “can become tools in the arsenal of an international superpower,” said Feldman. He recounted that President George W. Bush insisted that the original Article 18 language be included in the constitution of a post-Saddam Iraq. It was a sop, Feldman claimed, to evangelical Christians eager to make converts in the Middle East.

The fate and reapplication of just those few words, said Feldman, offers insight into “some of the ways international law evolves.”

In the past six decades, the UDHR has inspired human rights language in 19 constitutions adopted in post-Colonial Africa alone, and in 90 new national constitutions worldwide.

Still, the anti-Colonial movement was not a human rights movement — but at first most strongly a desire for “independence and self-determination,” said panelist Caroline M. Elkins, Hugo K. Foster Associate Professor of African Studies in Harvard’s Department of History.

On the other hand, the British were “hardly enthusiastic” about extending personal rights to Colonial natives, said Elkins, the author of “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya” (2005).

That lack of enthusiasm made the British “very strange bedfellows” with the Soviets regarding suspicion of the UDHR, she said, since both nations had their own reasons to be unhappy about “the emergent concept” of a world citizenry.

But it still makes sense to be skeptical of the power of the UDHR, since it fails “the acid test,” that is, implementation and enforcement, said panelist Princeton University political scientist Gary J. Bass, who recently taught at Harvard as a visiting fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

“My basic instinct is not to celebrate it,” he said of the UDHR. “We confuse the progress of our own institutions with actual progress.”

But the UDHR has the power to affect events — a “wooly power,” said Bass, that sometimes emerges from words alone. He used the Soviet Union as an example of how words matter.

In 1948, the USSR refused to ratify the UDHR, but signed it in 1975 as part of the Helsinki Accords, an international agreement the Soviets saw as memorializing their power over the Eastern Bloc.

The Soviets dismissed the UDHR as a minor diplomatic compromise — but its language, Bass pointed out, went on to energize a generation of Eastern European dissidents and contribute to toppling the Communist regime.

What happened with the Soviet Union, said Bass, in defense of the UDHR, “makes a hard case for soft power.”