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Human rights are inalienable and indivisible


Stéphane Hessel à l'UNESCO
© UNESCO/Michel Ravassard

Stéphane Hessel, French-German diplomat and writer, participated in the great adventure that was the drafting of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hessel, a concentration camp survivor, explains how the document is unique and why it must remain universal – but also why it might not be adopted today

Stéphane Hessel  answers questions from Vincent Noce

What was the prevalent feeling when the Declaration was adopted? 

Relief. Don’t forget we were already in the midst of growing opposition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Out of the first 50 countries who were members of the United Nations, 30 were Western. The battle was by no means already won. There were seven abstentions. As only the positive or negative votes were counted, the Declaration was adopted by consensus. The third UN general assembly (which adopted the Declaration) was held in Paris, at the Palais de Chaillot, by chance. The building set to be the Manhattan headquarters was still under construction. The press was quite enthusiastic, but it didn’t pay much attention to what was going on at
the UN. Particularly in the European countries, which were rather nationalist. 

And the preliminary meetings?

The first meeting of the nucleus committee was held in early 1946 in Manhattan. As for the secretariat, it was housed in a disaffected aeronautics factory on Long Island. Sometimes we met in New York, other times in Geneva. René Cassin from France was one of the driving forces behind the preparation. It was thanks to him we were able to draft a text that was ambitious and unique in the history of international texts.

We were working under the authority of Henri Laugier (France) who was the deputy secretary general for social issues and human rights, and John Humphrey from Canada, director of human rights, who had only one arm. It gave our committee a certain aura, because people thought he was a war invalid (note, his arm had been amputated when he was a child)

Afterwards, when the Human Rights Commission was set up in 1947, it took over. It was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, who played a very active role

It should be noted that participants did not represent their governments. They were suggested by their governments, according to their capacity and picked by the secretary general. It gave us great freedom, although we were careful not to make things difficult for the states. René Cassin never had to report to the French government.

As for me, I was called in February 1946 to become Henri Laugier’s cabinet director, which led me to get actively involved in these preparations. I stayed at the UN for four years. It was an extraordinary period of expansion and innovation to make it the fine edifice it became.

There were a few thorny issues in the committee, like the place of trust territories. We were still in the time of the Empires. But the main tension was between the West’s emphasis on freedoms, versus the East’s preference for economic and social rights.

Eleanore Roosvelt
© UN

A “unique declaration”, you said?

Already in the preamble, it stipulates the universal right to human dignity. That was our objective, after all the tragedies we’d lived through, from Auschwitz to Hiroshima… The states found themselves under the unquestionable leadership of Roosevelt in a strong institution that affirmed the person’s rights and freedoms.

The League of Nations (forerunner of the UN) had peacekeeping as its goal, but it did not concern itself with individuals. As for the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, its purpose was to protect the citizen against the arbitrariness of royal power. The whole ideology of human rights was thus positioned between power and those it dominated. But to extend this protection to an international level, and even universal, that was very bold.

This was the innovation: we are responsible for human dignity and the rights of the person. It was democracy’s catechism. In other words, we do not govern for the pleasure of power, but to guarantee the exercise of a democratic society. We were able to declare that governments could be held responsible for the rights of their citizens.

We had affirmed the universal responsibility of human rights. The word “universal” is obviously fundamental. 

How could the Khmer Rouge hold a seat in the United Nations?

There were no criteria for admission to the UN, like the ones Europeans are imposing today on new European Union members. States that had gained independence automatically became members. It was inevitable, but it had consequences. 

The UN wager was the following: countries must come in, and once they were in, they had to be led to respect human rights. 

Conflict - fundamental conflict - therefore exists between diplomacy for peace and peace for human rights. 

These are concessions made to cooperation. When we talk about diplomacy for human rights, of course it implies obtaining states’ consent. The declaration is not a legally binding treaty, even though it was followed by two pacts that are legal instruments ratified by states (note, the pact concerning civic and political rights and the pact covering economic, social and cultural rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966). We can incite states to ratify pacts, we can say to them watch out! We’ll bring charges against you to the Human Rights Commission. But there have been no exclusions with the exception of South Africa, for apartheid.

Some criticize human rights rhetoric for its strictly western values. 

Human rights are inalienable and indivisible. We must absolutely resist relativism. We cannot plead cultural differences to deny them. Moreover, western countries can be just as guilty, look at the prisons in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. It isn’t because they’re western that they’re any less responsible. We have to remain faithful to the principle of universality – it is fundamental.

 We can wonder whether the Declaration would have a chance of being adopted today as it was in 1948.   

The circumstances aren’t conducive. The shock of the Second World War made possible such radical ambition. Yet we could have a comparable shock tomorrow, notably about saving the planet. Or wild financialization of the economy. If we were terrified by a worsening crisis, a text with the same range, about the environment, for instance, could have the same chance of success. Whereas 60 years ago we weren’t ready

Back to the issue Human Rights: a thorny path, November 2008



Stéphane Hessel

Stéphane Hessel est un diplomate, ambassadeur, résistant, écrivain et militant politique français d'origine allemande. Il a participé à la rédaction de la Déclaration universelle des droits de l'homme en 1948.