When the Assistant Secretary-General of the newly formed United Nations, Henri Laugier of France, asked Hampton native John Humphrey to be the first director of the U.N. Human Rights Division, he responded:
“Ce sera une grande aventure.”
Early in his mandate, in 1946, Humphrey would be asked by Eleanor Roosevelt, the former First Lady of the United States and Chair of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, to do something that had never been done before – to draft an international bill of rights.
Chair of the UN Human Rights Commission, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Humphrey Rights documents had existed since the Magna Carta. The Americans crafted their Declaration of Independence, and the French had incorporated the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen into the fabric of their republique.
The authors of these significant documents were working to identify and highlight rights to be enjoyed by citizens within a particular country. The citizens shared, for the most part, a common ideology and goal. But to create a document that clearly defined the inalienable rights of all global citizens, one that transcended political, societal, economic, ideological and religious beliefs, was a monumental task.
By this time, in 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt had delivered his “Four Freedoms” address to the U.S. Congress. Roosevelt and Churchill had given the world the “Atlantic Charter” and at the end of World War II both the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials would draw attention to the need for identifiable human rights for all.
So, Humphrey went to work. He and his staff in the Human Rights Division compiled and examined all of the previous rights documents created throughout history. By poring over these documents they were able to get a sense of the rights traditions that had been established and by doing so began to understand the direction the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) had to take. The result, after months of meticulous work, was a 408-page blueprint.
The draft was presented to the members of the Human Rights Commission:
Chair – Eleanor Roosevelt, US
Rapporteur – Charles Malik, Lebanon
Vice-Chair – P.C. Chang, China
Vice-Chair – Réne Cassin, France
Soviet Representative, V.M. Korentsky,
Beginning with Humphrey’s work, Réne Cassin composed the first complete draft of the UNDHR. For this contribution and for his human rights related initiatives in France, Cassin would later be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968. Many argue that if Humphrey had not been a modest man, continually revealing that the drafting success was the result of an accumulative effort of many, both he and Cassin might have been co-recipients of the prize.
In 1948 the member states were ready to vote on whether the UNDHR should be adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Of the 58 members represented that day, 48 voted in favour, 8 abstained and two members were absent. None voted against the Declaration.
The following countries abstained:
6 Soviet Bloc countries
Because of a fear that religious and linguistic minorities would use the Declaration to obtain a stronger political position, and because of the concern that the UNDHR could possibly put more power into the hands of provincial legislatures, Canada was planning to abstain from voting. Of course, Humphrey was furious about the fact that his own country was considering the abstention.
On December 10th, 1948 the Canadian representation from the U.N. General Assembly, along with 47 others from the U.N. member nations, adopted the Universal Delcaration of Human Rights each year, since 1965, global citizens have commemorated Human Rights Day on Dec. 10th.
A lot has changed since 1948. It is interesting to note that some countries of the world that have democratized since the fall of communism in the Soviet Bloc have turned to the UNDHR as a guide in constructing their new constitutions, including Russia.
In her speech on the day that the UNDHR was adopted, Eleanor Roosevelt referred to the rights document as the “Magna Carta for all mankind.”