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Image: UN Photo

'Born free and equal in dignity': Human rights at 70

Courtney Tenz
December 10, 2018

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in the wake of the tragedies of World War II. DW spoke to Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon about the origins of the declaration and where it stands today.


Proclaimed on December 10, 1948, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a milestone document enshrining fundamental human rights — from acknowledging the individual's human dignity to the right to freedom of expression and access to information. With 30 articles, the document draws on the philosophies of several world cultures, as its creators worked together to find a common ground to prevent and protect against repeating the tragedies of World War II.

DW spoke to prominent Harvard University professor of law Mary Ann Glendon, who wrote a book on the origins of the declaration, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

DW: What inspired you to write your book, A World Made New?

In 1995, after returning from the UN's Beijing Women's Conference where fierce controversies raged about the scope and meaning of human rights, I searched for a history that would shed some light on the intent of the framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Finding none, to my surprise, I decided to look into the matter myself. 

How does understanding the history of the UDHR help us grasp its importance?

With memories fading and controversies now swirling about the post-World War II human rights project, it is good to recall how bleak were the prospects of the UDHR 70 years ago, and how it exceeded the expectations of supporters and skeptics alike.

With the Cold War deepening and the Palestine crisis erupting, hardly anyone imagined that a non-binding declaration would significantly alter the moral terrain of international relations. But to challenge the view that sovereignty provided a shield behind which states could mistreat their people without outside scrutiny was by itself an historic achievement. 

The declaration went on to touch millions of lives by becoming the model for many of the charters and bills of rights that were adopted in the postwar period. As time went by, it became a principal reference point for the movements that hastened the demise of colonialism, ended apartheid in South Africa and toppled the seemingly indestructible totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe. Today, hardly any flagrant or repeated instance of rights abuse escapes publicity. Most governments now go to great lengths to avoid being blacklisted as notorious violators. 

Are there any particularities from your research that stand out?

In the light of current controversies, I was fascinated to discover that the framers of the UDHR foresaw nearly every problem their enterprise would encounter — its buffeting from power politics, its dependence on common understandings that would prove elusive, its embodiment of ideas of freedom and solidarity that would be difficult to harmonize and its vulnerability to politicization and misunderstanding. 

Friends of human rights today might well benefit from pondering how the framers sought to protect the UDHR from the inevitable pitfalls it would encounter. In my view, there are four major lessons to be drawn from their wisdom.

First, the number of rights that people of vastly different cultures can or will recognize as universal is relatively modest. The framers of the declaration deliberately refrained from including ideas that did not have a strong claim to universality — not only to gain political support, but to assure that the declaration would have deep and lasting support across vastly different cultures.

Secondly, they understood that universality of rights did not mean homogeneity in bringing them to life. The standards in the UDHR were made flexible enough to respond to differing needs in terms of emphasis and implementation, but not so malleable that any basic right could be completely ignored or subordinated.

Third, they took enormous care to assure that it would be read — not as a mere list of unrelated rights — but as an integrated document where the rights are interdependent, meant to work together, rather than to be pitted against each other.

The "You and Human Rights" TV program broadcast from UN headquarters included four of the minds behind the declaration: Rene Cassin of France (2nd l), Dr. PC Chang of China (3rd l), Eleanor Roosevelt (middle) and Lebanon's Charles Malik (3rd from r)Image: UN Photo/MB

And, finally, they took a pragmatic approach to implementation that today is known as the principle of subsidiarity. Ultimately, they believed that the best protections for freedom and dignity were in the habits and attitudes of ordinary citizens and statespersons, reflected in appropriate laws and institutions. 

The last chapter of your book published in 2001 addresses where the declaration is "today." Has the general optimism you expressed about the importance of the UDHR changed in the last 18 years? Where would you say the declaration is today?

I do remain hopeful, if not optimistic.  To be sure, dreadful violations of human dignity still occur. But thanks in great measure to the spirit animating the postwar human rights project, large numbers of women and men have been inspired to do something about them.

Today, one may say that the human rights project has to some extent been a victim of its early successes. As soon as the concept showed its power, there were great pressures to multiply the number of rights, which in turn led to undermining the claim to universality, increasing clashes of rights, and even attacks on established rights. By trying to do too much, human rights activists have often failed to do the good that was possible. The challenge now, in my view, is to get back to basics.

A good place to start would be by recalling the four principles above that guided the great generation of men and women who sought 70 years ago to bring a standard of right from the ashes of terrible wrongs.

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