‘Movement in the Right Direction’: Reflections on 70 Years of the UDHR

Miia Halme-Tuomisaari
Helsinki Collegium of Advanced Studies
University of Helsinki


On December 10, 2018 the world celebrated the 70thanniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Declaration is commonly regarded as one of the most significant documents of the contemporary era, and its adoption is seen as a pivotal moment of the post-world war II era.

Over the past seven decades a massive global phenomenon has formed around human rights, an expansion that has been geared by both activist belief and commitment. Simultaneously human rights have been transformed into a vast professional field characterized by elaborate bureaucracies and tedious reporting, contributing to a sense of fatigue and alienation by civil servants and NGO activists, and also giving rise to collective questioning over the justifications and modus operandi of international collaboration.

How can we understand this mutual relationship of expansionary tenor combined with a sense of fatigue, as well as the continued importance of the UDHR in today’s world? Let us go back to the beginning to search for answers – or at least, perspectives. This attempt,however, presents us instantly with more questions: where should we locate this ‘beginning’? Where do human rights start – what is the foundational moment of the ‘contemporary human rights phenomenon’?

The ‘tale of Imagined antiquity’ and the ‘Big Bang Theory’

The question on the origins of human rights – or their history in general – has awakened keen debate over the past decade. The gist of historical debate can be summarized around two questions: Are human rights something that have ‘been around’ in some form as long as mankind,gradually entering our consciousness as mankind has ‘grown more civilized’? Or are they ‘new inventions’, marked by a distinct moment of origin – embodied in the adoption of the UDHR in 1948 – which consequently set everything that we see transpiring in the name of human rights today in motion?

In the introduction to the book Revisiting the Origins of Human Rights Pamela Slotte and myself called these two variations ‘the tale of imagined antiquity’ and the ‘big bang theory’. We further connected both of them to a ‘textbook narrative of origins’ which we characterize as the unilinear, forward-looking tale of progress and inevitable triumph of human rights authored primarily by Western philosophers,politicians and activists, and reproduced also in books of international law,sometimes with virtual uniformity from one decade to the next.

Irrelevance at the Fairmont Hotel in 1945

The adoption of the UDHR is commonly at the heart of the ‘Big bang theory’ via arguments that it was the collective abhorrence by the Nazi atrocities that resulted in the Declaration’s adoption after a virtual vacuum of rights initiatives in the inter-war period. Yet, nothing ever emerges in a vacuum, and closer examination shows this to be neither the case for the UDHR as many scholars have recently shown. In my chapter for Revisiting the Origins I discuss numerous precedents and ongoing initiatives around rights – or liberties – in the 1940s,including the vibrant inter-war French Ligue des droits d’homme, with the US counter-part being the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) working on civil liberties. These two traditions met up in New York in the early years of the1940s and merged into the International League for the Rights of Man, which also lobbied for a binding international bill of rights.

However,this newly formed coalition failed to exert great influence in lobbying efforts for the UDHR, which were dominated by a powerful American internationalist groups linked particularly to Columbia University. Concretizing the smallness of circles at the time, these US internationalist groups were the only ones represented in the founding conference of the UN in May 1945 in San Francisco –a moment which also solidified a mention of human rights into the UN preamble.

Thus, in light of this detailed historical data, talk of ‘global carnival-like mobilizing’ for human rights at that particular moment is misleading. Further,many of these activist US groups lobbied for the adoption of a binding legal document – and many had something more specific in mind still: an International Bill of Rights modelled after the US Bill of Rights, a proposal which found an outlet in a document known as the Statement of Essential Human Rights worked on(but not adopted) by the American Law Institute, and later introduced into the negotiations for the UDHR as the Panama Proposal.

Yet there was never even remotely sufficient state support for this idea: the US government was against any mention of a binding covenant, as were the UK and Russia, the primary political powers coalescing for the planning of the post-world war II world order. When the UDHR was adopted in 1948 – after intense drafting by the core committee in 1946-1947 including René Cassin, Charles Malik, John Humphrey, Pen-Chun Chang and Eleanor Roosevelt as its chair– archives reveal a mixed reception for the document: whereas it was heralded as a significant achievement by the newly formed UN, realistically very few people outside these circles took notice of the event at that specific moment.

Further, activist groups were disappointed at the severance of the desired robust, comprehensive,and legally binding bill into the mere legally non-binding preamble: the UDHR. Consequently some of them, instead of celebrating the UDHR’s adoption, were starkly disappointed, instead calling the Declaration a ‘dismal failure’.

Human rights as belief

These developments highlight solely the influence of western actors, while downplaying the significance of all other geographic groups and celebrating universality. This story talks of disappointment instead of celebration – a fear of failure where we customarily expect to see exhilaration over success.

What do these efforts tell us of the contemporary human rights phenomenon?

To take a few short-cuts, we arrive at a familiar conjuncture which casts human rights as essentially articles of faith – fragile entities that require diligent care,lobbying and protection so as to be able to do the work in the world that we need for them to do: to guarantee the equal treatment of all, irrespective of geographic origin, gender or anything else. Sentiments that I trace equally to human rights activism as much scholarship that has produced in their name, also while being cloaked in sophisticated expert jargon, and impartial-appearing talk of ‘the law’.

As we all know, protection is indeed needed as attacks against the international human rights framework are a daily occurrence today, be it via the collective threat of African states to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, or the consequences of ‘Trump-times’, marked among others by the US’s withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, thus ending a brief historical moment when human rights meant something truly universal, not merely in the realm of ideology,but in the realm of tangible action, and UN bureaucracy.

“development occurs slowly in the field of human rights, accompanied by regular setbacks”

Of course these attacks are by no means new, or unique: by contrast, one way to approach the history of human rights is to locate it specifically in these challenges; almost fights for relevance and impact. And contrarily to what we have now grown to think, there has been a lot less certainty over the eventual ‘triumph’ of human rights along the way than what we may construe from the perspective of today.

We know that the UDHR was soon after its adoption recognized in numerous constitutions of newly formed states. Yet on the international level legal certainty took much longer. The two decades between the adoption of the UDHR and the adoption of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1966 concretize this: this is a long time to wait for the legal culmination of utopia, even for the most devoted believers. Short was neither the additional decade that it took for these two covenants to enter into force in 1976, jointly and finally, almost three decades after the adoption of the UDHR, culminating the International Bill of Rights. One could continue with additional examples, but the point has been established: development occurs slowly in the field of human rights,accompanied by regular setbacks and fear of backward steps from earlier developments.

These challenges are further intensified by a nagging sense of doubt that so many human rights advocates continually seem to carry with them, and that perhaps awaken additional reflection in such celebratory moments: doubt over the genuinely universal grounding of human rights – what if they still form mere western imperialism, despite their global reach today?

What about the ambiguity of consequences that accompany human rights projects and humanitarian work; how can one be assured that they are resulting in unambiguous consequences in the world? In this precise moment these questions are reflected in extensive introspection that numerous international organizations are undergoing, revising their mandates as well as exploring their organizational cultures and reforming their institutional architecture.

History as rejuvenating mythology

This reality puts a heavy burden on the shoulders of human rights advocates and believers. How to keep the faith in progress alive – a progress so slow,volatile and at times uncertain? Intensifying the weight of these questions is the generational shift that is currently occurring within inner courts of the human rights community. Many of those pioneers who were around – not in the1940s when the UDHR was adopted – but rather in the 1970s when some scholars, most memorably Sam Moyn, have argued that the real human rights phenomenon started to unfold, are now retired or gone.

The passing of Sir Nigel Rodley, one of the longest serving members of the UN Human Rights Committee in 2017, offers merely one sad reminder of such a loss. As history grows more distant, in certain ways it seems to become more dear, both in the field of human rights and more generally. However, not always as a target of scholarly inquiry and intellectual curiosity, but rather as an almost mythologized source of reassurance, assisting those maneuvering in the uncertainty of today to rejuvenate their sense of belief. This assists also in understanding a sense of discomfort, even rejection, that sharing ‘inconvenient historical details’ around the drafting of the UDHR may awaken.

Historical fact of contemporary construction

But what if there is another way out – another way toward rejuvenated belief, and simultaneously, scholarly reflection for assessing the significance of the UDHR? Many of our scholarly efforts seem to be geared toward ascertaining whether the UDHR was significant or legally relevant at the time of its adoption. What if we should instead be focusing on the fact that the UDHR has become one of the most significant documents of our contemporary era since its adoption over the past seven decades – by being referred to in endless scholarly writings and numerous constitutions, by finding articulation in binding legal documents both at the international and national levels?

Over the past decade one of the most significant examples of rejuvenated belief is the LGTBI(Q)-movement which has successfully mobilized human rights language to highlight the cause: although the cause continually awakens controversy in international diplomacy, its status as a part of the international human rights vernacular has been solidified over the past decade.

These moves may appear as subtle, but I propose that we should take them seriously as this might provide a novel appreciation for why the UDHR is such an impressive document. When it was adopted in 1948 very few people in the world took notice,and activists considered the document as a dismal failure. Seven decades the document is known by people around the world, and very few if any would consider it a failure. These are both historical and contemporary facts, and as such tremendously important.

Curious Grapevine

I have been doing research on human rights for over a decade and a half. I have been infatuated by human rights for even longer. No matter how much I would like for things to be different, I am not a ‘believer’ in them – I lack a conviction that the world is ultimately a better place because of the things called ‘human rights’ or the document called ‘The Universal Declaration of Human Rights’.

As a social scientist, I am painfully aware of the impossibility of comparisons. It is impossible, for example, to draw a comparison between a world organized around a declaration of human duties, something that many supported in the 1940s, Mahatma Gandhi included despite him often being hailed as a champion of human rights. What might such a world look like: better than the one celebrating human rights,worse, or just different?

“UDHR has grown into a vibrant living document that people continually find relevant”

Yet, as asocial scientist I am also aware of the tangible, empirical evidence that I see in front of my eyes which communicates that human rights are – despite all the doubt, mundane bureaucracy and fatigue – continually entities that inspire belief and commitment in people as empirical facts that have come into being in the current real world. The same applies to the UDHR.

This, I construe, is the true testament of the importance of the UDHR as it turns 70: over these past decades – via multiple curious grapevines, to borrow Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous phrase – the UDHR has grown into a vibrant living document that people continually find relevant. This has not been because the UDHR is a legal document – but rather vice versa: its central tenets have been transformed into law precisely because of the commitment and sense of importance that they inspire. In today’s world characterized by uncertainty and doubt, this is something thoroughly worth celebrating.

Happy 70thanniversary, Universal Declaration of Human Rights!


This text is based on a paper delivered at the conference ‘The UDHR at seventy: Historical and Juridical Perspectives’, Maison de la Paix, Geneve Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, December 5, 2018.

The event also unveiled a new joint project between utopia3 and the Graduate Institute’s International History Department. It features special art work commissioned to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the UDHR. For more information, see: http://allegralaboratory.net/event-utopia3/

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