Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Historical Note: UNESCO and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

One of the first tasks the United Nations assigned to its Human Rights Commission (chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt) was the preparation of what was then referred to as an “international bill of rights.” The Commission was to produce a set of common standards that would serve as a kind of yardstick by which all countries could measure their own and each others’ progress toward making human rights a reality.

At that time, in 1945, no one really knew whether there were any rights with a plausible claim to acceptance in all the cultures of the world, or, if so, what they might be. "To examine those questions, UNESCO appointed a committee of philosophers, including some, such as Jacques Maritain and Benedetto Croce, who were prominent in the West, and others who belonged to Confucian, Hindu, and Muslim traditions. The philosophers in turn sent a questionnaire to other leading thinkers all over the world—from Mahatma Gandhi to Teilhard de Chardin. In due course, the Committee reported that, somewhat to their surprise, the responses they received indicated that there were a number of principles of basic decency that were widely shared—though not always formulated in the language of rights. Gandhi, for example, recommended framing a bill of duties. The Committee’s report, the questionnaire, and several responses are collected in Human Rights: Comments and Interpretations (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization ed., 1949)."

The book went through several editions, and appears to have been quite influential, being cited in many other works. As the Universal Declaration celebrates its 60th anniversary, the book is still available through used book dealers.

Source: Mary Ann Glendon, "The Forgotten Crucible: The Latin American Influence on the Universal Human Rights Idea," Harvard Human Rights Journal, Volume 16, Spring 2003.

Eleanor Roosevelt holding
a copy of the Universal Declaration

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