Hoover, J. (2013). Rereading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: plurality and contestation,
not consensus. Journal of Human Rights, 12(2), doi: 10.1080/14754835.2013.784663
City Research Online
Original citation: Hoover, J. (2013). Rereading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: plurality
and contestation, not consensus. Journal of Human Rights, 12(2), doi:
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Rereading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Plurality and Contestation, not Consensus
Dr Joe Hoover
International Relations Department, LSE Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE
J.Hoover@lse.ac.uk +44 (0)207 955 7389 (work) +44 (0)207 955 7446 (fax)
+44 (0)7775 430 520 (mobile)
Author Biography: Joe Hoover is a Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research focuses on global ethics and international political theory, particularly the importance of human rights in world politics, both in international law and global social movements. He has published work in International Theory, Human Rights Review, The Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, International Affairs, Millennium: Journal of International Studies and The Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies.
Abstract: In this paper I examine the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. My analysis counters conventional narratives of consensus and imposition that characterize the development of the UN human rights regime. The central argument is that within the founding text of the contemporary human rights movement there is an ambiguous account of rights, which exceeds easy categorization of international rights as universal moral principles or merely an ideological imposition by liberal powers. Acknowledging this ambiguous history, I argue, opens the way to an understanding of human rights as an ongoing politics, a contestation over the terms of legitimate political authority and the meaning of “humanity” as a political identity
Rereading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Plurality and Contestation, not Consensus 1. Reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
While human rights have long provided a vision for improving social life, the conventional
conception of those rights has been as universal moral principles based on each individual’s
inherent dignity, which make clear the requirements of any and all legitimate political authority.
From the natural law tradition offering universal standards constraining all sovereigns
(Koskenniemi 2009; Finnis 2011), to modern “political” accounts of international human rights
drawing limits around the state’s right to self-determination (Baynes 2009), our understanding of
human rights is dominated by a legislative conception of rights. This legislative conception starts
from some set of foundational moral principles – arrived at by divine dictate, transcendental reason,
constitutional authority, etc. – that then form the basis for legitimate law and provide an authority
beyond the political.1 The legislative conception of universal human rights has been subjected to
criticisms that it reinforces rather than challenges state power, bolsters an objectionable liberal-
capitalist order, and neglects the violence done to difference by Eurocentric accounts of human
nature (Douzinas 2002; Evans 2005; Tascon and Ife 2008; Žižek 2005). It has also been revised
repeatedly to take account of these objections (Ackerly 2008; Benhabib 2008; Cohen 2004;
Langlois 2002). At the centre of this still-ongoing debate is the unavoidable claim – inherent to the
legislative conception of human rights – that humanity has a common, and perhaps singular, moral
nature, shared by each of us, which provides a universal standard that all political authorities should
meet. The persistence of ethical diversity threatens to reduce this moral authority to mere coercion
and imposition, to make human rights an imperial ideology (Pagden 2003). It is in front of this
conceptual backdrop that the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is
taken to represent a vital moment of consensus that provides the authority necessary to the
legislative conception of human rights. Critics, however, call our attention to the shadow cast by the
historical imposition of human rights as an ideology justifying Western political dominance and
marginalizing weaker states and non-Western societies (Mutua 2002). Yet, we need not be confined
to such accounts of the UDHR’s significance if we reconsider our understanding of human rights,
which in turn alters the contemporary relevance of the UDHR.
In contrast to the legislative account of human rights, we can see an emerging agonistic
understanding that focuses on the use of rights as contentious political claims that demand social
transformation (Honig 2009; Hoover and Iñiguez De Heredia 2011; Schaap 2011).2 This
understanding is based on the use of human rights as a political tool, particularly by social
movements that challenge institutionalized authority with new rights claims (Goodale 2009; Hunt
2008; Stammers 2009). An agonistic understanding of human rights places the plurality and
discontinuity of rights claims at the fore, focusing on the way rights open up new political
possibilities, in contrast to the legislative understanding that focuses on delimiting a core set of
rights that constrains authority. Political theorist Bonnie Honig argues that legislative accounts of
human rights ‘invite us to assess new rights-claims as judges would – in terms of their analogical fit
to previous ones, of the appositeness of the claim to legitimate subsumption under existing higher
law (whether constitutional or universal) in a gradually unfolding linear time, of whether the new
rights were in nascent from always already’ part of the human rights ideal (2008, 104–105). An
agonistic understanding of rights shifts our focus, and as Honig suggests, ‘there is another way to
think about some of these emergent rights, in relation to different contexts, not against the backdrop
of the increasing universalization of rights as such but rather in relation to a politics of rights and a
politics of foreignness that might (yet) go lots of different ways.’ (Honig 2008, 95) Rethinking
rights and rereading the UDHR as agonistic provides us with an alternate way of understanding
human rights, an alternative that focuses on contestation and discontinuity.
Human rights entail a particular logic, which shapes the politics that emerges. Human rights
make use of the category of humanity to make a moral claim upon the legitimate organization of
social life – these claims are formally universal in reference and global in scope, but the nature of
these claims is not fixed. A legislative account of human rights presumes some final and
fundamental universality to human identity. If we instead view human rights agonistically, rights
claims open up a contest over the significance of humanity as an identity, which places the question
of legitimate social organization into a global context, but without presuming that there is a single
or final set of rights, nor a single form that legitimate political authority must take. The central
purpose of this article is to suggest that if we think of human rights differently, such that ‘[e]ach new
right inaugurates a new world’ (Honig 2008, 104), then the historical meaning of the drafting of the
UDHR changes. A further purpose is to attend to the details of the drafting of the UDHR as an act
of claiming human rights, so that it can inform an agonistic understanding of human rights. Before
turning to an analysis of the drafting of the UDHR, I consider both the conventional significance it
has for supporters and critics, and the general question of how the history of human rights has been
Our understanding of the significance of the UDHR tends to oscillate between two poles: on
one side it can be seen as a moment of founding for the human rights regime, based on the
documents unique status as a symbol of moral consensus (Cerna 1994, 740–752), while on the other
hand it can be seen as a political imposition by the post-war liberal powers intent upon remaking
the international order in their image (Mutua 2007, 552–555).
Forty-five years ago, on 10 December 1948, the international community adopted by consensus, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, still the preeminent document in the growing corpus of human rights instruments. Today, a group of nations is seeking to redefine the content of the term “human rights” against the will of the Western states. This group sees the current definition as part of the ideological patrimony of Western civilization. They argue that the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration reflect Western values and not their own. (Cerna 1994, 740)
The UDHR has a special status in either narrative, but my primary task is to upset these competing
narratives and the legislative understanding of rights that makes them plausible. Many histories of
the UDHR have been written, all of them acknowledge the complex political context of the drafting
to some degree (Glendon 2006; Morsink 1999; Lauren 2003; Waltz 2002), but the connection
between how we read that history through our understanding of human rights is under appreciated
and too little explored. While historical knowledge of human rights is invaluable for deflating
myths, our return to past events is unavoidably reflected though the conceptual framing we carry
with us, which suggests that reading the UDHR agonistically will change how we understand that
historical moment and provide insight into contemporary human rights politics.3
In the consensus narrative, the General Assembly’s endorsement of the UDHR symbolized a
break with a terrible era of world politics – based on narrow state interests, nationalism, colonialism
and racist ideologies – and provided a cornerstone of the foundation upon which a new international
order could be built. ‘The human rights instruments and covenants, as conceptualized in [the]
UDHR and other major UN conventions, exhibit common narrative standards based on the widest
attainable consensus among nations with diverse cultural traditions, religious doctrines, and
ideological systems.’ (Chowdhury 2008, 349) The consensus achieved by the UDHR, reflecting
both the content and the process of its drafting, then served as a basis for the development of human
rights that followed.
There appears to be consensus within the UN and among states, academics, and human rights advocates that the UDHR is the most significant embodiment of human rights standards. It has been described as “showing signs of having achieved the status of holy writ within the human rights movement.” Elsewhere, the UDHR has been described generously as the “spiritual parent” of other human rights documents. (Mutua 2007, 553)
Even where care is taken to acknowledge the limits of the original consensus in 1948, which
excluded colonized peoples and was opposed via abstention by six communist states, as well as
Saudi Arabia and South Africa, this imperfect consensus is presented as a political failing, rather
than a failure of the rights regime as such.
Given that eight countries abstained out of an international body made up then of only fifty-six states – most of which were from the West or politically “Westernized” – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was thus not born “universal,” even for those who took direct part in the process of its elaboration. There is no denying, therefore, that those who had not participated in the negotiations and who labeled the Declaration as a “Western product” did indeed have a point. Having had no voice in the negotiations period from 1946 to 1948 because they were, largely, Western colonies, Afro-Asian countries had a valid reason to question the legitimacy of the Declaration’s authority over every cultural or political system. To a lesser extent, the same logic applied to the European socialist states, which abstained in the vote despite the inclusion in the document of the social and economic rights they had firmly defended. Nevertheless, all of them quickly lost the grounds for their objections. (Alves 2000, 481–482)
While failings are admitted, the human rights project is redeemed by the universality the UDHR
Sophisticated analyses of the UDHR point to the way in which its break with traditional
international politics was resisted by both “Western” and “non-Western” states – reading it as the
founding document for a new universal movement that is still unfolding (Moyn 2010, 81–83).
Within this line of thinking, overcoming the biases of the state-centric system is key.
Only by reiterating that human rights treaties are constructed outcomes of negotiations that demand change in all discriminatory and repressive cultures, can we stop the selective adoption of human rights and challenge all states that give lip service to human rights but continue to violate the rights of their citizens, support repressive regimes, or uphold corporate interests over human rights and dignity. (Arat 2006, 437)
While the UDHR itself may not represent a perfect or final consensus, it is a pivotal starting point
for a more fully consensual and international human rights regime – for example, paving the way
for the consensus reached on the 1993 UN Vienna Declaration on human rights (UN General
Drawing representatives from the existing major cultures, religions, and sociopolitical systems, with delegations from over 170 countries, in a world virtually without colonies, the Vienna Conference was the largest international gathering ever convened on the theme of human rights. Its final document, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action – adopted by consensus without a vote or reservations, although with some interpretive statements – unambiguously affirms, in Article 1 that: “The universal nature of these rights and freedoms is beyond question.” (Alves 2000, 482)
The Vienna Declaration, then, completes the consensus that justifies a world order based on human
rights. This second moment of consensus, however, essentially confirms the universalism of the
UDHR and redeems the imperfections of the original drafting process.
The contrasting narrative is one of ideological imposition and political dominance. In this
narrative the US, and Western states generally, used their political superiority after the Second
World War (WWII) to impose a new international order upon the rest of the world (Mazower
2009). This was resisted by communist states at the time and made possible, at least in part, by the
marginal status of many of the world’s peoples still living under colonial rule.
The narrow club of states in the UN at the time seriously compromised the normative universality of the movement’s founding document. Antonio Cassese, the former President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, wrote that the West imposed its philosophy of human rights on the rest of the world because it dominated the United Nations at its inception. (Mutua 2007, 554)
Therefore, rather than providing a moral basis for this new world politics, the UDHR merely
continues the dominance of the West by imposing a distinctly liberal conception of individual
human rights on the rest of the world. This critique runs deeper than an accusation of bare political
domination. By justifying the content of human rights through an appeal to a universal and singular
human essence, Western powers infused the new order with their own ideology. ‘The official
documents of human rights, therefore, embody a specific cultural world-view: that of the modern
Western world, but more insidiously, in the very assumption of ‘human’ that this also entails.’
(Tascon and Ife 2008, 318) The appeal to human nature and dignity justifies the imposition of
human rights norms on everyone. It is this universal account of humanity and the assumed
superiority of a liberal international order, not simply the act of exercising Western power, which is
This critique retains its force even if one does not assign nefarious motives to the drafters of
the UDHR. ‘Ultimately the assumption of the natural dignity of human being became part of the
UDHR despite the attempts by the drafters to keep the language neutral on this topic.’ (Parekh
2007, 763) There is, it seems, an irresolvable contradiction in the idea of human rights – it requires
an appeal to some feature of our essential humanity to justify the legitimacy of human rights, but
that appeal is always partial (Hoover 2012). ‘Though the UDHR is based on an essentialist view of
the human being, the drafters were aware of the difficulties that come with such a basis. This
historical moment reveals the depth of the problem that we are still trying to reconcile.’ (Parekh
2007, 764) Whether critics see room for further practical agreement on human rights within the UN
framework, or think that the regime is deeply compromised by its biases and inherent tensions, the
presumed universality of the UDHR is seen as a moment to be overcome not celebrated.
Understanding human rights in agonistic terms suggests that we attend to their political
content more closely, which the legislative conception of human rights obscures with its claims to
be apolitical (Moyn 2010, 212–227). This claims is sustained by the supposed moral consensus that
justifies human rights – famously defended by Michael Ignatieff (2001), but which has been
challenged as limited and ideological (W. Brown 2004). An agonistic account of rights rejects the
idea that we can achieve an apolitical moral consensus on the meaning or significance of human
nature, suggesting that any such account will be partial and contestable. Further, it focuses our
attention on the politics that follow from our account of humanity as a moral identity, such that
even a limited political vision is still political and cannot be taken as incontestable or inherently
desirable. An agonistic understanding of human rights suggests that we should see the UDHR’s
drafting and signing as a pivotal moment in an ongoing debate about human rights, which can be
understood in terms of two key issues: (1) the meaning of human dignity, and (2) the implications
of human rights claims for the transformation of world politics. To understand why these two issues
emerge and why the UDHR responds to them in the way that it does, we need to appreciate the
context of the drafting – namely as a particular response to the process of post-WWII
reconstruction. The general purpose of human rights at the time was to affirm the significance, and
reality, of our common humanity in the face of nationalist and racist ideologies, and as a nascent
challenge to the supremacy of state sovereignty as the organizing principle of world politics.
Further, an agonistic understanding of rights undermines the traditional narratives in which the
UDHR’s consensus provided the basis for future progress, as if the guaranteed promise of the future
was necessarily contained in the past. Seeing the human rights project as open to both regressive
and radical change, and progressing along plural lines of development, undermines and complicates
criticisms that it is a limited political project imposed by powerful states.
The debates that occurred during the drafting of the UDHR suggest many of those involved
saw themselves as providing a foundation to build a new world politics, that is, thinking very much
in terms of a legislative understanding of rights. My own argument is not that thinking about human
rights agonistically reveals the true intentions of the drafters but rather that adopting an agonistic
understanding we can see the drafters’ disagreements as exemplifying the ambiguous and contested
nature of human dignity within the supposed consensus found in the UDHR, and demonstrating a
self-conscious and partial effort to reconstruct the institutions of world politics.4 In the following
section, I look at how the history of human rights is told and how this informs our understanding of
the historical context of the UDHR before turning to the debates that took place during the drafting
process. In the third section I focus on the debates during the drafting process concerning human
dignity, and in the fourth section I focus on the alternative political orders considered in the
drafting, emphasizing that the settlement that was reached was a specific and contested response to
their contemporary problems and not the final word on the shape of the international order. Finally,
in conclusion, I offer a brief account of the significance of this rereading of the UDHR for how we
understand the human rights project.
2. The Contested Historiography of Human Rights and the Context of the UDHR
How one understands the importance of the UDHR depends in part on how one understands
the history of human rights. A dominant strain in the literature searches for the deep historical roots
of the idea.
Since the phrase was consecrated in English in the 1940s, and with increasing frequency in the last few decades, there have been many attempts to lay out the deep sources of human rights… The worst consequence of the myth of deep roots they provide is that they distract from the real conditions for the historical developments they claim to explain. (Moyn 2010, 11–12)
As a result the history of human rights is often written in broad stokes and as a progressive
narrative moving from natural rights to universal human rights.5 More rigorous historical works
examining the details of how the idea and discourse of human rights emerged, as well as the
distinctive move to an international conception of these rights after WWII have begun to challenge
this grand-narrative approach.6 Nonetheless, how we understand human rights matters for how we
write and read their history.7
Does the UDHR represent an important step in the progressive development of human rights
as a universal morality?8 If so, then it becomes a story of the search for universal rights that provide
a single foundation for legitimate political authority – which is very much a story of Western
political development spreading to the rest of the world (Charvet and Kaczynska-Nay 2008, 42–78).
Or is it a disruptive event, one that grows out of a movement advocating for international human
rights in opposition to an international order dominated by the inviolability of state sovereignty?9 If
so, the UDHR is a central chapter in the story of the revision of the European international order,
where sovereignty is tamed through international organizations and treaties that articulate universal
human rights as a central pillar in a new international legal order (Afshari 2007, 6–9).10 Or, finally,
is the UDHR a milestone in the development of democratic politics, in which social movement use
human rights to challenge established authorities? Histories of popular political movements,
working to realize a variety of political goals through universalist appeals suggest that the UDHR
can be seen as emerging from a plurality of disparate developments that nonetheless form an
identifiable tradition of democratic transformation (Lauren 2003, 37–70; Korey 1998, 29–50;
Kurasawa 2007, 1–22). These different ways of constructing the history of human rights depend on
how we understand human rights.
The dominant account, leading to the view of the UDHR as a foundational moment of
consensus, has been one of an expansive history of moral universalism that culminates in the
utopian project of human rights in the twentieth century. A more skeptical reading suggests that
human rights are far newer and break with past legal and moral traditions in the post-WWII era.
Both readings, however, are tied together by a legislative understanding of rights. In adopting an
agonistic understanding of human rights, I want to suggest that the diverse histories we tell are the
result of the ambiguity of the idea of human rights itself. The ambiguity of human rights is not
unique, as a matter of its historical development, but acknowledging and even affirming that
ambiguity in our normative conception of human rights is a distinctive aspect of an agonistic
approach. Further, the plural ways we can represent the history of human rights shows how the
concept is contested and always political. The reading of the UDHR I develop here is not only
concerned with the use of rights to further democratic politics, which it supports, but also with the
contradictory uses and consequences of human rights claims.
Whatever historical understanding of rights we take up, the specific concept of international
human rights only begins to feature in modern international law in the late 19th century, most
notably in the Geneva Conventions addressing the lawful treatment of wounded and captured
combatants, as well as non-combatants and civilians. An explicit internationalist agenda, aimed at
undermining the traditional balance of power system emerges as a significant political force after
the First World War (WWI), and while they were not formal human rights organizations, the
League of Nations and the International Labour Organization did express concern for the rights of
individuals and peoples as an important part of maintaining international peace (Lauren 2003, 71–
102; Burgers 1992). In the inter-war period and during the WWII the idea of human rights, and
specifically an international law of human rights, gained momentum among intellectuals, activists
and civil society organizations. Numerous associations, including labor unions, religious societies
and political campaigns, embraced the idea of an international law of human rights and pushed
reluctant states to uphold them. For example political groups such as the Commission to Study the
Organization of Peace and the American Association for the United Nations, as well as religious
groups like the Federal Council of Churches and the American Jewish Committee actively worked
to include human rights in the UN Charter (Korey 1998, 30–33). Labor organizations were active
early on, including the American Federation of Labor, which submitted a draft declaration to the
committee that produced the UDHR (Morsink 1999, 168–169). Individually, H. G. Wells, Franklin
and Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacques Maritain, W. E. B. Du Bois and Kwame Nkrumah were influential
public intellectuals calling for human rights at the time, though ranging in their views from utopian
socialism to Pan-Africanism (Lauren 2003, 147–154). The idea of human rights gained a degree of
plausibility and acceptability among governments as well, and not just among the major Allied
powers using them to justify their war with the Axis powers (Lauren 2003, 136–146 and 154–165).
In particular, Latin American countries were early supporters of the development of international
human rights law, as well as former British colonies such as Australia and New Zealand (Lauren
2003, 166–177). Also, the ongoing anti-colonial and nationalist struggles were supportive of efforts
to affirm the right of self-determination as a central human right (Morsink 1999, 92–129).
Focusing on this immediate context, in which the UDHR emerges as the first official and
global human rights document, explains the institutional form that the post-war human rights
movement took and the lasting significance of the UDHR. As the UN became the primary
international organization for the creation of a reformed international politics, it likewise became
the institution within which human rights laws would be drafted and agreed. As important as it was,
this nascent movement to institutionalize international human rights through the UN, in hopes of
taming the existing system of sovereign states, was hardly an uncontested or unambiguous
development. Not only was the UN dominated by victorious post-War powers that were broadly
supportive of the existing international order (Mazower 2009) and resistant to including human
rights in the UN, but the idea of human rights was also marginalised among socialist states (Moyn
2010, 39–41). This meant neither the US nor the USSR was particularly interested in developing an
effective international human rights regime. Retrospectively, the UDHR and the human rights
system of the UN have been framed as key developments in a legalized and moralized international
order – and the post-war period certainly was vital in the development of international human rights
law – but this obscures the marginality of human rights at the time.
Along with these traditional understandings of human rights, as both marginal to power
politics and giving rise to a new legalized order, the discourse that emerged around universal
emancipation enabled a plurality of political movements that were potentially more disruptive. The
human rights discourse informed movements that took aim at deep-seated and wide-spread
patriarchy, racism and imperialism, which were insufficiently addressed even by the more utopian
aspirations of the UN system. This broader notion of universal human rights was in conflict with
the prevailing notion of sovereignty, as well as the more reformist supporters of human rights. The
incoherence of the emergent human rights regime could be taken to reflect the persistent force of
statist structures or the politically compromised nature of human rights, but these evaluations
persist because it is assumed that true human rights will be coherent, indivisible even, rather than
ambiguous and at times working at cross purposes.11
The dominant story of both the post-war human rights movement and the founding of the
UN is told as a response to the tragedy of WWII. While I do not want to promote the idea that the
post-war order was a great victory for the forces of justice and order – a political mythology that is
challenged by the injustices sustained and created by this new order (Mutua 2007, 552–557 and
619–629) – I do want to suggest that the war was the event that gave the human rights movement
substantial force and made the UDHR a possibility. Certainly, there had been many destructive
wars before and WWI had similarly shaken the old Westphalian faith, but the breakdown of
international political order in WWII was more extreme, and was part of a massive social disruption
in which the Western world found its technology turned against life itself with staggering ferocity,
its moral superiority proved an illusion, and its institutions of political authority under siege at
home and in the colonized world. Further, the contributions of women and minority groups in the
war enabled marginalised populations to gain new experience and knowledge, which gave rise to a
desire to see their sacrifice redeemed through political change – as the project of rallying the world
in a “fight for freedom” against tyranny inspired those subject to different tyrannies to continue
their fight, including African-Americans, Black South Africans, the working class throughout
Europe, Latin American states and nations just emerging from the yoke of empire. The old
international order was consciously being remade not just by and for the victorious powers, but
with the inclusion of many new voices silenced by the previous order.
The Western rights tradition was certainly not the only political and ethical tradition that
could have responded to the loss of political legitimacy brought on by the disorder of WWII. Yet, in
the context in which the UDHR was written that tradition was dominant. Rights were the currency
of social and political reform in European countries – democratic revolutions were fought in the
name of the civil rights; the working classes struggled for labor rights; minorities claimed rights of
self-determination and equality under the law; women struggled for emancipation using the
vernacular of rights (Ishay 2008, 85–172).12 This is not to suggest that all struggles for social
change were expressed in a language of universal or human rights, but it is important to note the
historical dominance of the rights tradition within powerful states and that the idea of universal
rights spread and pluralized rapidly. Where white, Christian, middle-class, property owning men
demanded political and civil rights in the French revolution, suddenly Catholics, Protestants, Jews,
Women, ethnic minorities and the “lower” classes were making their own claims in the name of
human dignity (Hunt 2008, 146–175).13 A similar process began during and after WWII among
disadvantaged groups in Western states and among colonized peoples (Lauren 2003, 147–154).
This should not, however, imply that a single set of universal human rights was being progressively
realized, rather it demonstrates the persistence of exclusions within expressions of human rights,
and the contestation of those exclusions. The development of human rights has often been played
out as a struggle of the oppressed or weak against established powers, but overcoming exclusion or
marginality is always a fragile achievement, as the powerful are able to co-opt or rollback social
change (Stammers 2009, 160–189). This is true of the UDHR and the international human rights
regime it helped initiate, as powerful states and international actors can make use of the language of
rights as often as the marginalized – suggesting that we need to be attentive to the ongoing politics
of human rights.
The actual drafting of the UN Charter challenges any sense that the human rights vision was
dominant in post-war politics; rather it was surprising that the call for universal rights was given as
much space in the charter as it received. In San Francisco, the influence of smaller powers,
prominent individuals, emerging NGOs and public opinion proved sufficient to give the idea of
universal rights an ambiguous but prominent place in the new charter. Along with the efforts of
those at the conference in San Francisco, a conference of twenty-one American states held before
the UN drafting convention expressly opposed the Dumbarton Oaks agreement and sought to
include human rights in the new UN Charter (Lauren 2003, 170). Three of the participants in the
Inter-American Conference on War and Peace – Cuba, Chile and Panama – provided early drafts
for a human rights declaration they hoped to see taken up by the UN (Morsink 1999, 2). The rights
movement, however, was marginalized in the structure of the new agency – relegated to the
Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) it seemed highly unlikely that human rights would
emerge as an institutional and political force sufficient to challenge the five permanent members of
the Security Council.
The drafting of the UDHR started shortly after the UN charter came into effect and took
place over two years. The initial process was characterized by a great deal of disagreement over
what sort of action the new UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), created within
ECOSOC, should undertake. Recommendations were made for a declaration of common principles,
for a legally binding international bill of rights and even for a complementary international human
rights court (Morsink 1999, 12–20). To address the question of what kind of document or institution
to produce for the UN system, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO) conducted a survey of prominent thinkers from around the world on their thoughts
regarding human rights (Glendon 1997, 1155–1157). Along with the UNESCO project, the Drafting
Committee of the UNCHR was inundated with suggestions and drafts for an international bill of
rights (Lauren 2003, 119–211; Morsink 1999, 1–4). Latin American governments submitted
important drafts, with the draft from Panama proving influential, and also the American Law
Institute produced a draft declaration and a number of important studies related to the issue
(Morsink 1999, 5–6).14
The declaration itself is properly seen as primarily the work of two men. John Humphrey, an
international lawyer from Canada who served as secretary for the UNCHR, produced the initial
draft. He drew on the hundreds of pages of material submitted to the UNCHR, a survey of existing
national constitutions, and included an extensive bibliography of sources (Morsink 1999, 28–35).15
René Cassin, the French representative and also an international lawyer, then used this draft to
produce the document that was used in further deliberations. The final document is structured so
that key principles that apply to the whole document, namely its universal and equal application to
all people regardless of their political status, appear first. The different rights are then articulated in
groups, with political, civic, economic, social and cultural rights all appearing in turn. The final
provisions then underline the intentions of the document by stating a general right to a secure and
peaceful international order (Glendon 1997, 1162–1173).
With a clearer sense of the ambiguous historical development of human rights and the
specific context in which the UDHR was drafted, we can analyze the drafting process as a unique
moment in the development of human rights, in part consolidating a diffuse ideal, while also setting
the stage for further contestation and development. In the following two sections this is done by
focusing on two key debates, first, on the meaning of human dignity and, second, on the nature of
the political transformation human rights implied for international politics.
3. Contested Dignity, or, Where Agreement Stops and Politics Begins
The idea of human dignity is central in the UDHR. Parekh sums up the issue, saying
‘Ultimately the assumption of the natural dignity of human being became part of the UDHR despite
the attempts by the drafters to keep the language neutral on this topic.’ (Parekh 2007, 763)
Supporter and critic alike agree that “human dignity” in the UDHR points to the essential human
characteristics that give rights their authority, where they part company is on whether a neutral and
consensual definition was achieved – or is possible at all. There are two problems with this
understanding. First, the focus on a neutral account of dignity, or its absence, is required by the
legislative understanding of rights, which sees them as moral principles that determinately limit the
boundaries of politics. If we reject this view in favor of an agonistic one, then the contestation over,
and ambiguity of, human dignity is as important as the consensus, or lack thereof. This highlights
the second problem with conventional understandings of human dignity in the UDHR: they only
focus on those elements emphasizing the need for, and achievement of, consensus – leaving the
contest over the meaning of dignity under-examined. In this section, I focus on why the drafters
thought human dignity was so important to the UDHR, as well as how they disagreed about the
meaning of dignity, which suggests that rather than achieving a consensus, the UDHR is an early
opening in an ongoing discussion of human dignity and its significance in world politics.
Reading histories of the UDHR, and transcripts of the drafting process, one is struck by how
long the drafters spent suggesting, debating and revising individual articles. Yet, an important
philosophical conversation prefaced this practical work and constantly re-emerged. As P. C. Chang,
the primary Chinese representative, stated in a meeting of the UNCHR intended to define their task,
‘I am afraid when we are asserting rights, rights, and rights, we are apt to forget the standard of
man. It is not merely a matter of getting things, getting things, but also: what is the objective of
being a man?’ (UN Commission on Human Rights 1947b) The discussion of human dignity was
seen by many of the drafters to be a vital part of the declaration, for it served as justification in the
preamble for the rights articulated. While others, notably Colonel Hodgson, representing Australia,
and Hansa Mehta, representing India, were critical of the extended philosophical debates that were
had throughout the drafting process. Yet, despite trying the patience of some, there was an overall
sense that these philosophical issues mattered. Charles Malik, of Lebanon, responded to Mehta’s
impatience with philosophical talk by underlining that ideology informs all thought and insisting
that the UNCHR deal with such matters in the open.
Then, the honourable representative from India said that the Charter already contains a mention of human dignity and worth and that we should not enter into any ideological maze in our discussion here. Well, unfortunately, whatever you say, Madam, one must have ideological presuppositions and, no matter how much you fight shy of them, they are there and you either hide them or you are brave enough to bring them out into the open and see them and criticize them. Furthermore, it is precisely my intention to give meaning to that vague phrase, human dignity and worth, which is used in the Charter to give it content and, therefore, to save it from hollowness and emptiness. (Charles Malik quoted in UN Commission on Human Rights 1947e)
The discussion of dignity was important in revealing the different views of why human dignity
justified the new human rights declared, but it did more than that. By focusing the drafters on the
task of, as Chang put it, ‘making the standard of man respected,’ (UN Commission on Human
Rights 1947b) the focus on human dignity clarified the problem they were addressing. The
declaration of these new human rights was intended to affirm universal moral principles for
international politics based not on the authority of states but the value of human dignity. Early on
Chang grasped the novelty of what they were doing, saying, ‘we are dealing with something which
has not been dealt with before, namely the international aspect of equality.’ (UN Commission on
Human Rights 1947e)
While it is possible to overstate the importance of Nazi atrocities to the UDHR drafting
(Waltz 2001, 53), the wider context of WWII was the immediate backdrop. In particular, there was
a sense that the defense of human dignity provided by a new human rights institution was called for
by the mistreatment of, and extreme demands placed on, individuals (Lauren 2003, 204–205).
Assistant Secretary General, Henri Laugier, opened the 1st meeting of the UNCHR with a clear
evocation of this purpose:
With your boundless devotion to the cause of human rights and to the cause of the United Nations, let us here gather strength for our fight from the recent memory of the long darkness through which we have come, where tens of millions of human beings died so that human rights might stay alive, from the memory of all those men and women who have found in their dignity alone the strength to sacrifice their lives in order, obstinately, to proclaim, amidst the depths of surrounding darkness, the presence and the permanence of the stars. (UN Commission on Human Rights 1947a)
The work of defending human dignity was seen as a deeply moral task demanded by concrete
political tragedy. In particular, there was a sense that a common humanity had to be affirmed and
that individuals protected from the power of the state. Cassin expressed these commitments often:
We have seen and lived through a period when human society has been practically destroyed by the application of a concept of race, or concept of the nation, or concept of the volk, I will call it; and it is a most important fact that we should have lived to see this possibility of men crushing and denying the rights of man, both as communities and as individuals. I think we must insist upon this fact: that we must finally reach the fusion of the idea of man as a community and man as an individual. (UN Commission on Human Rights 1947b) The State, in other words the collectivity, has asked the maximum from millions of people, the greatest thing they could offer – their lives. (Drafting Committee 1947f)
The sacrifice demanded by the state played a key role in understanding both rights to membership
and welfare provisions as central to human dignity.16 This is important because the discussion of
human dignity was not simply an abstract philosophical discussion, but a form of practical moral
reasoning at work, articulating a moral ideal to guide political change. Human dignity was defended
against a backdrop of real offenses – all encompassing interstate war, mass slaughter, enormous
civilian casualties, nationalist and racist ideology, statelessness, economic depression – and the
debate reflected that situation even as it revealed a pluralism of views on how to address it.
Malik, Chang and Cassin are widely considered to be the primary intellectual forces
involved in the drafting (Glendon 1997, 1157–1159).17 This, however, did not mean they were of
one mind on the meaning of human dignity. In an early UNCHR meeting, Malik focused on dignity
in terms of conscience, defined as the ability to change one’s mind:
If we have any contribution to make, it is in the field of fundamental freedom, namely, freedom of thought, freedom of conscience and freedom of being. And there is one point on which we wish to insist more than anything else, namely that it is not enough to be, it is not enough to be free to be what you are. You must also be free to become what your conscience requires you to become in light of your best knowledge. It is therefore freedom of becoming, of change that we stress as much as freedom of being. (Malik 2000, 16–17)18
This led him to focus on the protection of persons from the power of the state, to accord a special
place to civil society, and to support the preservation of space for free thought, opposition and even
rebellion against established authority (Malik 2000, 26). Further, he was among the strongest
advocates of human rights because he thought they ensured that the people determined the state.
‘We intend to say that the people are active and take the initiative in the determination of the State.
It is not as though you come to the people, offer them something, and they consent to it. It is our
intention that originally the people, themselves, take the initiative in determining what the state
should be.’ (Drafting Committee 1947f) So, while it is accurate to point to Malik’s emphasis on
‘natural rights’, we see that his understanding of their justification was hardly orthodox and
attempted to preserve, in the concept of human dignity, what he saw as essential in human being
and becoming.19 There is a tension in Malik’s view, or perhaps blindness, in asserting that the most
important freedom to protect is a person’s freedom to change and become, while also asserting that
we can build a social order upon man’s essential nature that does not limit that very freedom. Yet,
despite his essentialist rhetoric, Malik continuously put the protection of the freedom of the person
into the context of his times.
Who is this person? This person, Mr. President, is the living, dying man who suffers and rebels, is scared, is often undecided, makes mistakes, the man who thinks, hesitates, decides, and gossips, and who needs to be lifted when he falls. It is the being even who blushes, laughs, and changes his mind when he knows better. This being, Mr. President, in his own personal dignity and self-respect is in danger of being drowned and obscured by political and ideological systems of all sorts. (Malik 2000, 60)
Whatever the consistency of his metaphysical beliefs about human nature, Malik’s defense of
human rights was based on an opposition to forms of social order that failed to respect persons as
feeling, thinking and creative beings increasingly subject to the power of the nation-state, at the cost
of intermediate ties, and devalued by contemporary conditions and ideologies.
Along with Malik, Chang was probably the most philosophically inclined participant.20 In
addition to clearly articulating the task the drafters had before them in terms of human dignity,
Chang also made important contributions the idea as it developed in the UDHR. His primary
thought was that conscience, as an essential aspect of dignity, involved what he called ‘two-man
mindedness.’ (Drafting Committee 1947d) The idea of two-man mindedness implies sympathy as
fellow feeling, but also something deeper and more demanding, what Chang described as
‘extending our consciousness to others.’ (Drafting Committee 1947d) This involved both
recognition of mutual duties between all human beings and respect for the values of others. ‘The
definition of man is to be human-minded – namely, that whatever he does, he thinks of the other
person as if the other person were in his place.’ (UN Commission on Human Rights 1947b) This
entailed not only the acknowledgment of a common humanity, but also an insistence that two-man
mindedness enabled understanding across cultural barriers and could inspire consideration for
others. Chang, for example, insisted that reference to a monotheistic deity be kept out of the
document, as this would undermine its potential universality for non-theists (Glendon 2006, 47).
The idea of two-man mindedness develops dignity in a different way than Malik’s notion of
conscience, as Chang points to an orientation that individuals should, and can, take toward their
relationships with others. This involves, as he said, ‘the feeling of the sense of human dignity in the
individual, that is, as an individual feels when he thinks of equality. He feels that he is as good as
anybody else’. (UN Commission on Human Rights 1947e) This idea goes beyond the recognition of
equality to suggest that the individual must see from the perspective of others. Therefore, along
with asserting the freedoms and rights of the individual, the consideration of human rights requires
determining the social ties and obligations that exist internationally. The practical consequences of
this in the UDHR included recognition that individuals have obligations to the community and that
states retain a degree of privilege as the political embodiment of distinct ways of life, which was
reflected in several articles and shared by a number of those involved in the drafting process.
Ronald Lebeau, from Belgium, supported Chang’s focus on both individual freedom and duty (UN
Commission on Human Rights 1947c). ‘In the eighteenth century the human being was the
individual whereas in our opinion, the human being nowadays is the person who participates in the
normal life and existence of society.’ (Ronald Lebeau quoted in UN Commission on Human Rights
1947c) Also, General Carlos Romulo, from the Philippines, shared a concern to ‘take into account
all the different cultural patterns there are in the world, especially in respect to popular customs and
legal systems.’ (UN Commission on Human Rights 1947c)
Cassin was the third major intellectual figure among the drafting committee.21 While he
often expressed his agreement with both Malik and Chang, his words reveal that he had his own
particular views. More than perhaps any other participant Cassin felt the UDHR must respond to
the horrors of WWII and ensure dignity by affirming the oneness of humanity and guarantee the
legal personality of every individual:
But the fundamental that there is a unity in human society, society composed of human beings which can be compared to one another, which has the same natural aptitudes whatever this would be, this is the most important thing which must be placed in our resolution. (UN Commission on Human Rights 1947e)
This is a point which we have not yet examined and I think it is appropriate. Since we are studying the fundamental rights of man, to state that not only must everybody be free physically, but to state also that every human being normally possess rights and obligations, and, therefore, has “legal personality.” (Drafting Committee 1947e)
While he affirmed Chang’s notion of two-man mindedness by asserting ‘that idea of reciprocal
duties is at the foundation of the concept of fraternity,’ (Drafting Committee 1947d) one wonders if
it contained the same sense of struggling to extend one’s consciousness to understand the
perspective of another. Cassin’s further remarks suggest he was less aware of, or concerned with,
how a universal account of human dignity might impinge upon otherness. The violent
particularlism that characterized WWII was at the forefront of his mind and while he argued that ‘it
is quite obvious that we cannot, in our International Organization, affirm or assert concepts or ideas
which would be special to any one nation or to any one category of man,’ (UN Commission on
Human Rights 1947b) he expressed little doubt that each individual must hold their universal rights,
which could be agreed upon without any imposition, as a recognized legal person before a
representative political authority.
It is perhaps Cassin’s familiar grounding in a liberal universalism that has lead many to see
the entire UDHR as a “Western” project. This does a disservice to Cassin’s thought, as he was
remarkably cosmopolitan in his view, asserting that human rights break open the state, exposing it
to scrutiny and interference. Further, he modulated the very French idea of “Fraternity” into a
global register, looking beyond the national republic to a human community that must be protected
through the establishment of international legal rights. Other liberal members also shared his
individualistic view. Charles Dukes, the British representative, stated that ‘the British conception of
human rights rests fundamentally on a belief in the dignity and importance of the individual man. It
is a conception which the United Kingdom will always defend.’ (UN Commission on Human
Rights 1947b) Dr Jose A. Mora, from Uruguay, echoed this sentiment, arguing that the individual
should be placed at the centre of international law in order to undermine the absolute authority of
national sovereignty (UN Commission on Human Rights 1947b). Likewise, Eleanor Roosevelt
spoke in individualistic terms, though it is worth noting that she, like the other “liberal”
representatives, were concerned with economic and social rights as well as civil and political ones,
taking it to be central to the dignity of individual that a person had health, welfare, food and
It becomes clear in examining the debates over the drafting of the UDHR that there was no
simple consensus on what dignity meant and that the contesting ideas informed the resulting list of
rights – as well as further plans for institutionalization – in different ways. Yet, this contestation did
not result in the victory of a single ideological view or the creation of a practical but empty
consensus. Instead, we see a vigorous debate in which key lines of thought emerge that played
crucial roles in the development of human rights. There was an agreement WWII, taken as a diverse
experiential whole, revealed a grave threat to human beings in the forms of deprivation, war,
murder, expulsion and statelessness – and, importantly, the state was inadequate to the task of
preventing these abuses, and was in many cases a direct perpetrator of them. This lead to a common
commitment to a shared humanity, yet even this common picture of human dignity was painted in
many hues. Also, there was a shared sense that new political institutions were needed to protect
people from the power of the state, again for many different reasons and leading to different
suggested reforms, examined in more detail in the next section. Attending to the ambiguity of these
early debates gives us more than a richer history of the ideas that motivated the early stages of the
human rights project, they also provide an impetus for reconsidering how ethical and political
theory relates to such events. It is all too common to read the lack of consensus as a failing, or part
of a process that, ideally, will lead to consensus – this tendency comes out of how we understand
human rights. The effort to capture a sense of the debates over human dignity highlights the value
of an agonistic perspective, as we can understand that contestation in ethical terms.
4. The Shape of Politics to Come: International Order and Human Rights
The second aspect of the drafting I consider is the self-conscious reconstruction of the
structure of world politics that the participants took on. This was an unavoidable feature of their
work, as articulating an international set of human rights necessarily implied that new demands
would be placed on all states. Therefore, the fundamental distinction within legal and political
thought between domestic and international spheres was thrown into question. Yet, even though
addressing this question is necessary to the idea of human rights, the debates during the drafting of
the UDHR did not lead to one comprehensive set of reforms. Conventionally, the story told about
the place of human rights in the immediate post-war era is one of political weakness. Not only was
the inclusion of human rights in the charter of secondary concern to the major powers, but also the
emerging Cold War rivalry marginalized human rights within the UN (Lauren 2003, 233–270).
These accounts are accurate so far as they go, but they are importantly retrospective and I am
interested in how the drafters understood their role in reconstructing international politics, separated
from their eventual ineffectiveness. The appeal to the UDHR as a founding document for a still
emerging international human rights regime is one-dimensional and ignores plural lines of possible
development. Revisiting these debates, however, also undermines an account that sees human rights
as marginal to international politics or only the tool of powerful states – the conceptual power of
human rights is beyond such easy control.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the debates that lead to the UDHR, especially given
conventional criticisms that human rights were marginal to the UN, is that the participants in the
drafting process acknowledged that declaring and institutionalizing human rights was a necessary
part of the post war reconstruction. Also, there was a clear recognition that such a reconstruction
would undermine conventional notions of state sovereignty and that the international community
had a newly articulated duty of concern for individuals. These facts were seemingly taken as given
starting points. Where there was disagreement was over what the practical implications of this shift
in focus to individuals would be, and how far the traditional international order would be (and
should be) undermined by a declaration of human rights. Important points of contention were on the
necessity of an international court of human rights, the legal implications of a binding convention,
the direct reporting of human rights abuses to the UN and whether UN human rights institutions
would be staffed by state representatives or independent individuals.
Hodgson and Mehta were strong advocates for a human rights court. They saw that such a
court was essential to establishing an effective international bill of rights (UN Commission on
Human Rights 1947c). Cassin, likewise, was a strong supporter of supra-state legal institutions that
would confirm the international legal personality of the individual. During the first meeting of the
UNCHR it was decided that the work of the Commission should focus on three tasks: drafting a
declaration of principles, drafting a binding convention, and finally drawing up provisions for the
implementation of human rights – this final task was the least successful (UN Commission on
Human Rights 1947f).
The opposition to a human rights court (or other strong independent institutions for
enforcement) was varied. It is easy enough to read the opposition of the UK, USA and USSR as
being concerned with preserving their dominance by affirming state sovereignty over individual
accountability. Yet, in each case there was a principled case against such a court. The USSR was
most opposed. They not only rejected the creation of international legal institutions that would
place the rights of the individual above those of the state in international law, but cogently pointed
to the danger that such a move would institutionalize a standard of civilization that would recreate
the logic of imperial and colonial authority, recently and partially discredited, only now expressed
in terms of individual rights (Vladimir M. Koretsky quoted in Drafting Committee 1947b). The
USSR was hardly alone in its concern that a strong international rights regime would be dominated
by Western powers, potentially threatening international stability and undermining the right to self-
determination of smaller and newly liberated states. Chang and Romulo were both hesitant to
embrace a comprehensive international legal regime, and even Malik was keen to emphasise the
protection small states needed, giving special emphasis to the right of self-determination for
peoples in the UDHR (Drafting Committee 1947b; Drafting Committee 1947c). The UK and US
were obviously less motivated by a fear of colonial imposition and rather more concerned with the
danger of weakening the authority of the state as the most effective and appropriate protector of
individual rights, though they supported the idea that human rights provided a universal standard
for the legitimacy of states.
While it is correct that the inclusion of human rights in the UN marked a dramatic change in
the concern for individuals, and their rights, in international politics, the controversies that the
question of enforcement generated reveals the politics of human rights present at the drafting.
Attending to these disagreements is valuable, not only does it better inform our account of the early
human rights regime, but it is telling for the contemporary regime as well. Hodgson, Mehta and
Cassin were correct that international institutions were needed to enforce human rights effectively,
and the creation of such institutions in recent decades is widely considered a positive development.
Yet, the worries expressed by socialist states and newly liberated ones remain important, as the
institutionalization and enforcement of human rights take place in a political arena with great power
disparities. Then, as now, the desire to protect individual rights cannot be separated from more
partial political interests.
Early during the first meeting of the Drafting Committee a distinction was made between a
declaration and a convention. This was done to overcome questions regarding the legitimacy of the
committee writing a binding legal document, with the USSR being skeptical of its authority to do
more than recommend articles for discussion and seeking clarification of whether the
representatives were obliged to express the official position of their government.23 Other major
powers were also cautious in establishing a binding legal document that infringed on state
sovereignty. The US position, for example, was complicated by Roosevelt’s personal support for
strong human rights institutions and official US hesitance to agree to a document that defined state
obligations beyond those in the UN charter (Glendon 2006, 71–72). Smaller states were concerned
with the potential effects of a human rights treaty that would alter existing international law. In
discussing the work to be taken on by the Drafting Committee, Dr Ghasseme Ghani, the Iranian
representative to the UNCHR, worried that a strong human rights document could undermine the
stability of the established system (UN Commission on Human Rights 1947b). These concerns led
to the decision to prepare both a declaration of principles and a convention, implying different
procedures reflecting the different status the documents would have.
Those countries favoring a legally binding document tried to give priority to the drafting of
a convention. Hodgson and Mehta were strong supporters of a convention, as was the UK,
represented by Dukes and Geoffrey Wilson, both of whom were keen to specify any declared rights
in order to clearly establish subsequent changes to the legal rights and duties of states.24 In the end,
however, the primary focus was given to a non-binding declaration. The reasons for this were
complicated. Partly it was a matter of political expedience, writing a non-binding document proved
less difficult, and partly a result of the difficulty of drafting even a declaration that could garner
wide support, as the later stages of the drafting of the UDHR proved contentious. Importantly, it
was only because the declaration did not require the UCHR to resolve the issue of the legal standing
of a convention that it was possible for a widely accepted international document to emerge, as its
legal and ethical ambiguity were central to its political success. The surprising value of the UDHR
as a statement of principle capable of inspiring further and diverse forms of political action was
most clearly perceived by Roosevelt (Glendon 2006, 173–174). For many, this early failure to have
an enforceable legal document was a major failing of the early human rights efforts of the UN, yet
it also initiated a broader human rights politics in which the ideas and language of rights was taken
up in new contexts, making it a more democratic though less binding document.
The other major controversies were over the shape the new UN human rights institutions
would take. In particular, there was disagreement over whether the UNCHR should set up
mechanisms for individuals to directly report human rights abuses, and over the official standing of
representatives in various human rights bodies – whether they would be state representatives or
individuals free to express their own opinions and pursue ends set out by the UN human rights
mechanisms. What on one level is a bureaucratic debate is also fundamental to the emerging human
rights institutions and their degree of independence from state authority.
Roosevelt was a strong supporter of individual reporting mechanisms, motivated by the
correspondence she received both as a private individual and as member of the UNCHR. Speaking
of communications she had received, she said, ‘I am conscious of the fact that human rights mean
something to the people of the world, which is hope for a better opportunity for people in general to
enjoy justice and freedom and opportunity.’(UN Commission on Human Rights 1947a) For her, and
other supportive representatives such as Cassin and Malik, the UN could do vital work by providing
a forum for individuals to appeal to when they were abused or neglected by their government.
Debates within the UNCHR, however, were rendered peripheral by judgments higher up within the
UN structure that determined that communication of any alleged rights abuses would be made
anonymous before the UNCHR received them and that the UNCHR could only consult these
communications to inform their work, not press for redress within the UN (UN Commission on
Human Rights 1947g). This stunted effort at reform was partly inspired by the experience of WWII,
where the states had turned against their citizens in horrific ways, but also by a developing sense
that responsibilities to fellow human beings suffering in far flung locations required global
institutions. This emergent cosmopolitan structure, however, did not survive the early debates and
the new human rights institution deferred to state authority, a compromise fully institutionalized in
later conventions in which monitoring was done through country reports prepared by state
authorities then passed on to the UN.
The debate over representation risks seeming even more arcane, but it was a key issue. In
the early sessions of both the UNCHR and the Drafting Committee there were many questions
regarding the status of representatives, did they represent themselves or their government. Further,
the question of who could be involved in the drafting of human rights documents was raised,
particularly, whether outside experts or UN officials not representing governments could draft
binding documents. It was decided that they could be consulted but authority rested solely with
state representatives. The USSR was particularly emphatic, though the US shared this view (which
complicated Roosevelt’s own position). Further debates were over who would participate in the
human rights institutions that were being set up. Malik and Cassin, in particular, were supportive of
having individuals capable of expressing their own views in these institutions, as well as the
inclusion of experts and relevant organizations.25 Again, these matters of procedure would have
major effects on the kind of institution the UN became and how much power the suggested human
rights standards would have. The interests of state sovereignty won this struggle as well and further
entrenched a UN approach to human rights that was dominated by the rights of states, but the
contest was hardly decisively ended – the UN has since adopted reforms to include non-state
representatives and to improve their responsiveness to abuses reported to its various human rights
bodies.26 At the same time, these debates illustrate the depth of the divide between different
understandings of human rights – between those that preserve the authority of states and those that
seek an international politics defined by individual rights – and that they may be irresolvable,
suggesting that a more global human rights regime must involve a profound political transformation
unlikely to come about through moral suasion or piece-meal change.
While the success of more fundamental reconstructions of international political order was
limited, small and important changes were made. Further, the contests seen in these early debates
have continued to be important for the development of human rights. Two key changes are worth
focusing on. Whatever the failings of the early human rights institutions and documents to
overcome the priority given to state sovereignty, there was a revolutionary change simply in giving
international legal status to individuals. Cassin was the most clearly aware of the significance of
this change, and the most vociferous advocate of institutionalizing it. Also, the legal person that
emerged was defined as importantly equal; the significance of the focus on non-discrimination in
the UDHR, at that time, is hard to overestimate. Not only was it a response to the racist ideologies
of the defeated Axis powers but it challenged a variety of practices that embarrassed the victorious
powers as well. The UDHR’s insistence on non-discrimination gave support to the decolonization
movement, bolstered women’s rights movements, challenged racist policies in South Africa and the
Unites States, and empowered those opposed to nationalistic politics. While the legacy of this
institutionalized legal individual is not purely positive, these changes were historic and altered
international politics in profound ways.
Also, the UDHR enshrined the equal sovereignty of states, while also making respect of that
sovereignty dependent upon respect for human rights. At the time these were seen as important
victories for colonies fighting for self-determination and small states, long made insecure by the
actions of powerful states. Further, the focus on the conditions of legitimate sovereign authority
spoke against the unmitigated power of state officials and was optimistically seen as a challenge to
despotism, totalitarianism and systematic forms of oppression and deprivation. However, it is
important to appreciate the sorts of politics it was thought would invalidate a state’s sovereignty at
that time. Those involved were concerned with the systematic forms of abuse enabled by the notion
of absolute state sovereignty and the deprivation and insecurity brought about by modern
economics and war, these concerns were especially shared by Malik, Santa Cruz and Cassin during
the drafting process (Drafting Committee 1947f). This resulted in a focus on political reform in
favor of democratic representation, the elimination of oppressive forms of international control
(colonial and imperial), the importance of the provision of social and welfare rights, and
establishing the guarantee of citizenship. Yet the fact that these reforms were broadly liberal or
social-democratic says more about the context of the UDHR as an ethical response to the problem
at hand than it does about the essential nature of the idea of human rights.
In the end, my concern is less with the role of the UDHR in establishing the UN human
rights regime that actually emerged and more with the sort of questions about international order
that it enabled. Two features of this debate are particularly important. First, that this sort of self-
conscious reconstruction of international politics is a necessary consequence of human rights as an
idea. Cassin was right that giving the individual central importance in international politics, by
claiming rights in the name of a common humanity, fundamentally transforms those politics, but
the final shape that reconstruction takes is not certain.27 This is the second feature of the debate I
want to emphasise: the victory of state interest in the early period and the revitalization of UN
human rights institutions after the Cold War were not necessary developments. This is a particularly
important point for human rights supporters that see the UDHR as a foundational document upon
which a grand edifice has progressively been built up – our current human rights politics is not the
unfolding of some process begun in 1948. Its development is clearly influenced by the ideas and
institutions that did emerge, but the opening for reconstruction created by human rights does not
close. Just as the debate around dignity is ongoing and developing in diverse ways, so to is the
human rights politics that was begun in earnest with the drafting of the UDHR.
Looking to the historical origins of human rights – both as a broad tradition of political
thought and as a specific international development in the post-war era – suggests that an agonistic
understanding of rights is in some measure plausible and also that it allows us to rethink
conventional understandings of human rights. The key lines of inquiry developed here, looking to
the plurality of values that are supported by an appeal to human dignity and the different lines of
political development it enables, suggest that human rights remain an ambiguous political project,
as much as a singular and utopian moral vision.
For those that are critical of the Western origins of human rights – the negative effects of
which are exemplified in coercive practices of intervention justified as securing human rights,
hierarchical relationships justified in terms of development and good governance, and the
privileging of a individualistic liberal subjectivity over all others – rereading the history of the
UDHR should give pause to any impulse to simply reject human rights. Acknowledging that human
rights open up a discourse over the significance of humanity as a political identity and confront us
with the challenge of creating a legitimate order in world politics also acts as an invitation to join in
that contest and not to cede the emancipatory potential of human rights to dominant powers.
Upendra Baxi warns that ‘[n]o contemplation of open and diverse human rights futures may remain
innocent of their many histories,’ which suggests that understanding human rights as an always-
contestable project undermines the myth ‘that human rights traditions are “gifts of the west to the
rest.”’ (2007, xxix)
Human rights advocates, on the other hand, should be cautious of their own capacity for
myth making, especially if human rights politics are to retain their capacity to challenge existing
power. The promise of a remade international politics that places the protection of individuals at the
centre of legitimate authority is hardly a dream realized and the Janus-faced embrace of human
rights by dominant states risks the dangers of institutionalization, highlighted by Neil Stammers
(2009), in which the transformative demands of rights are reduced and made acceptable to existing
power. Along with a wariness of established powers keen to make strategic use of human rights, we
must also be alive to the danger of a lack of self-reflexivity in supporting human rights. Returning
to the controversies surrounding the UDHR, and understanding those contests as the start of a new
human rights politics rather than a founding moment, suggests that we need to attend to the fact that
each articulation of human rights standards creates exclusions at the same time, such that a liberal
human rights vision, for example, may run counter to the vision of human rights inspired by
socialist aspirations or the struggles of indigenous peoples. Whether we see the pre-eminence of
human rights as a negative or positive development in international politics, reading the drafting
and adoption of the UDHR as something less than the very beginnings of contested and diverse
political project does a disservice both to the potentials and the risks in supporting human rights.
1 What I am terming the legislative conception of rights is a generalization of a number of different accounts of what human rights are and how they are justified, but which share a common logic in their justification – namely that of a moral authority outside of, and above, politics that gives legitimacy to the law and its enforcement. See Michael Walzer’s work (Walzer 2007, 1–21) for a similar account of this legislative conception of rights. 2 Agonism is most basically the idea that politics and ethics are defined by the persistence of disagreement, which means that conflict is inherent part of social life – the challenge of agonism is to create a politics and an ethics in which conflict is transformed into contestation between parties that can nonetheless coexist – what Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe characterize as the move from antagonistic to agonistic relationships (Laclau and Mouffe 2001; Mouffe 2011). In the realm of rights, an agonistic understanding focuses on the plurality of moral claims that we can make on political authority (Connolly 2005) and the ongoing democratic contestation that those rights are a part of (Honig 2009) – this involves moving away from Ronald Dworkin’s influential notion of rights as trumps (Dworkin 1978), to a conception of rights as ethico-political claims that make and remake both the institutions of political authority and the contours of the political community. 3 See Reinbold (2011) for an examination of the history of the UDHR that understands the core idea of dignity as a founding myth that justifies the political practice of human rights. In contrast, Morsink (1984) offers a more conventional philosophy of human, which is importantly linked to how we understand the history of the UDHR. Moyn (2010) focuses on the distinctive nature of international human rights, in contrast to previous moral universalisms,
natural rights and constitutional rights. The key point is that that no historical study of the UDHR is innocent; what we find, and how we understand what we find, depends on what we think human rights are to begin with. 4 I am not making the claim that any of the drafters were themselves thinking agonistically about human rights, and certainly not in the specific terms I outline here – though some were clearly more attentive to the partial and contestable nature of the human rights projects than historical readings influenced by a legislative conception of human rights fully appreciate. The claim I am making is that attending to the details of the drafting process helps us understand the contestation at the heart of the human rights project, which can be recovered by thinking about rights in agonistic terms. 5 The most successful and historical of these studies is Lauren (2003). A less historically compelling study with an emphasis on the continuity of moral universalism and human rights is Ishay (2008). 6 Exemplars of this approach include Moyn (2010), Hunt (2008), Morsink (1999), and Wasserstrom, et al. (2007). 7 Moyn (2010), for example focuses on the distinctive challenge to state sovereignty that becomes central to human rights thinking from the 1970s onward and therefore emphasis the development of human rights in the late 20th century. 8 Lauren’s The Evolution of International Human Rights (2003) is the most comprehensive and convincing statement of this position. 9 This account is made in compelling fashion in Moyn’ The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010). 10 Also, see Philpott (2007, 17–37) and Brown (2002, 19–56). 11 It is this reading that leads Moyn to argue that human rights do not come into their own until the end of the twentieth century (2010, 173–175), as a truly international human rights regime must necessarily be opposed to the dominance of state sovereignty as a principle of international order.. 12 Also see Afshari (2007, 9–35), although he is keen to point out these domestic and single-issue rights movements were qualitatively different from the idea of human rights. On the development of women’s rights, see Fraser (1999). 13 This process is very well illustrated in Hunt’s analysis of the case of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. 14 Also, the American Law Institute published its work as Lewis and Elingston (1946). 15 This account has served to establish Humphrey’s vital role in the drafting in contradiction of Cassin’s own assertions that he was the chief author. 16 This connection is made most strongly by Cassin and Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile (Drafting Committee 1947f). 17 For a detailed account of the drafting process see Morsink (1999, 4–35). 18 Charles Malik was the youngest member of the Commission on Human Rights and was a novice in diplomatic matters, having only recently been selected as the representative for Lebanon – leaving his previous position as a philosophy professor. While Malik was a Christian, he also strongly identified as an Arab and was particularly concerned with the special threats faced by small states in an international society dominated by powerful states and imperial powers. Educated in the USA and Germany, he completed his PhD under the supervision of Martin Heidegger and Alfred North Whitehead. While he was a strong supporter of human rights and an opponent of Soviet communism, he was not a conventional liberal or Westernized elite – he remained committed to Arab independence and saw himself as a fundamentally religious thinker. For more on Malik’s biography and thought see Joe Hoover, “Remembering Charles H. Malik”, The Disorder of Things, 9 February 2011, http://thedisorderofthings.wordpress.com/2011/02/09/remembering-charles-h-malik/#more-1873 (accessed 29 March 2011). 19 ‘Obviously, the very phrase means that man in his own essence has certain rights; that therefore, what we are going to elaborate must answer to the nature and essence of man. Therefore, it must not be accidental. It certainly must not be changing with time and place. The Bill of Rights must define the nature and essence of man. It will reflect what we regard human nature to be.’ (Malik 2000, 58) In particular, he was keen to emphasize that he was not defending an atomistic or pre-social individualism, but rather concerned with preserving the dignity of persons in light of the power of social and political orders. ‘It can be shown that as the masses rose, man, humanity necessarily declined. When you become an atom in a massive ocean of identically like atoms, without structure, without distinction, without ontological differentiation of function, then you lose your sense of essential inalienable human individuality. The international work of human rights and fundamental freedoms is a faint effort to recover this lost individuality, to the end that the individual person should realize his own natural dignity, namely the rights and liberties with which he, as a man is endowed by nature.’ (Malik 2000, 135) 20 Peng-Chun Chang was originally an educator, playwright and literary critic, who earned a doctorate at Columbia University under the supervision of John Dewey. He was involved in the fight against Japan after they invaded China in 1937 and it was during and after the war that he was recruited to the Chinese diplomatic service, first as a spokesperson charged with disseminating information on Japanese atrocities, then later as an ambassador to Turkey and Chile. He was known to be a strong advocate of Chinese culture, keenly interested in cross-cultural dialogue and a committed secularist. Like Malik he was concerned to establish greater equality between states and was deeply affected by Western and Japanese dominance of China. For further details see Glendon (2006, 33 & 132–133). More extensive background on Chang can be found in R. Cheng and S. Cheng (1995). 21 René Cassin was a secular French Jew who had served as a soldier in WWI before studying law. WWII interrupted his career as a professor of law when he went to England to join De Gaulle’s resistance and served as the general’s chief legal advisor. His support of human rights was influenced by the murder of many family members by the Nazis
and his conviction that the French rights tradition, focused on the equal legal standing of all citizens, should be expanded to the international levels. See Glendon (Glendon 2006, 61–64). Further details can be found in Agi (1988). 22 The tenor of liberal or “Western” political thought at this time was very different that what we associate with later forms of philosophical liberalism or political and economic neo-liberalism. The UNESCO (1948) survey on human rights, illustrates this broader intellectual background well, as does the collection on human rights from the American Law Institute (Lewis and Ellingston 1946). 23 Koretsky, for example, attempted to reopen debate on this point in the Drafting Committee even after the Commission on Human Rights decided that a binding document could be proposed, though it would subject to state ratification. His intervention on this point goes on for 30 pages of the transcript (Drafting Committee 1947b). 24 Dukes make his position clear in the meeting on 31 January 1947 (UN Commission on Human Rights 1947b), and Wilson gives his support for a binding convention in the meeting on 12 June 1947 (Drafting Committee 1947b). 25 The debates and votes over the issue can are carried out in across the 10th, 11th and 12th meetings of the Commission on Human Rights (UN Commission on Human Rights 1947c; UN Commission on Human Rights 1947d). 26 In contrast to Moyn’s claim that the human rights project was stillborn in 1948, I would suggest that this analysis highlights the fact that the human rights that state actors were willing to accept and which rights advocates were able to pressure states to accept were different and far more minimal than the reinvigorated account of human rights that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. 27 ‘I think we must insist upon this fact: that we must finally reach the fusion of the idea of man as a community and man as an individual. There may be important intermediate stages, such as the existence of the state, but I think there is not one state in the world which does not at present recognize the necessity for the observance of human rights.’ (UN Commission on Human Rights 1947b)
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