Article: The lowest common denominator - the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, but it was a rocky road that led to this achievement. Even though the different stakeholders had different points of departure, the states managed to agree on the principal idea, a lowest common denominator of equality and dignity.


Sometimes it is a good idea to turn to history to understand contemporary phenomena. When human rights are discussed – for example when asking if they are a Western phenomenon or represent universal values –it is well worth recalling the historical starting point. The idea to create universal human rights was born in 1945, the year the UN was founded. The world was in ruins after a devastating war during which 55 million people lost their lives. The barbaric racism of the Nazi regime showed to the entire world the moral all-time low humanity had reached. This was the impetus for the desperate wish to establish a moral and legal framework that could prevent any repetition of the horrors of WW II. A resounding "Never again!" was heard in the international community.

Many believed that the new global organisation would be the powerful instrument the world needed. The predecessor to the UN, the League of Nations, had failed in the 1930s to uphold its pledges when Italy conquered Ethiopia and when Hitler annexed Rhineland – events which led to WW II. It was in this generally activist post-war atmosphere that the UN convened a human rights commission to draw up an "International Bill of Human Rights". Human rights should not just be talked about, they were to be defined, and the necessary machinery to ensure that they were implemented was to be set in motion.

Even if the will was present, the process would prove to be cumbersome and replete with challenges. The crux of the problem was to get representatives of different states, cultures and religions to agree on what human rights meant and entailed. Eleanor Roosevelt, the UN activist and the widow of Franklin D. Roosevelt, formerly the President of the US, was elected as the chairperson of the Commission. Eager to get the work off and running, she invited representatives to an initial meeting of the Governing Committee on 17 February 1947 in her apartment in New York. Attendees were Peng-Chun Chang from China, Charles Habibi Malik from Lebanon and the representative of the UN Secretariat, the Canadian law professor John P. Humphrey. The latter was delegated to draft the initial proposal.


Study Chinese philosophy for six months


It quickly proved that Chang and Malik were too far apart from each other in their philosophical approaches to be able to commence the work on writing a text. "There was much talk, but nothing came of it," Humphrey later wrote about that meeting. He continues: "Then, after yet another cup of tea, Chang proposed that I should shelve all other work duties for six months and study Chinese philosophy. After that I might be able to prepare a text for the Committee. This was his way of suggesting that the alleged Western influence was getting too strong (...) This was followed by some more discussion, generally of a philosophical nature, Mrs Roosevelt did not say much and continued to serve tea."

Chang was not the only one who was sceptical to whether the Human Rights Commission would succeed in its undertaking, which was to pen an "International Bill of Rights" that was universal in nature. Later the same year the Commission received a long memo from the American Anthropological Association. The association was concerned about ethnocentrism – the belief that the values of one's own culture were better than those of others. The anthropologists believed that the Commission risked becoming ethnocentric, and that the declaration would reflect American and Western European values.

The American professor Johannes Morsink, who has written a book on the process, states that the Commission representatives were aware of the great challenges and the responsibility resting on their shoulders: "As they continued in spite of the warnings, they must have believed that they had found a way to qualitatively compare different value systems which create different lifestyles and even whole cultures."1

The Universal Declaration is often accused of being a Western construction, but there are good grounds for claiming that it made human rights universal. The Declaration gave the world a value code and a set of rules to protect the dignity of the individual. This is evident when we look into the process that led to the UN's decision to adopt the Universal Declaration on 10 December 1948.


The Human Rights Commission


The Commission that was convened to write the "International Bill of Rights" had 18 state representatives. In addition to personal qualifications, geographical distribution was a selection criterion. Representatives from the following countries were given the assignment: Australia, Belgium, the Byelorussian SSR, Chile, China, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Lebanon, Panama, the Philippine Republic, the United Kingdom, the USA, the Soviet Union, Uruguay and Yugoslavia.

The Commission met initially in January 1947 and nominated a committee of three persons to draft the first text proposal. Even though the first meeting did not yield immediate results, as we have seen, the committee secretary, John P. Humphrey, wrote the first draft of the declaration. Some of the Commission representatives who initially had supported the proposal that the drafting committee should comprise only three members soon came to other conclusions. One of these was the Soviet Union delegate, who criticised that the "Bill of Rights" would only be written by a few experts and therefore asked for an expansion of the committee. The drafting committee then had representatives from eight countries – Australia, Chile, China, France, Lebanon, the Soviet Union, the UK and the USA – and that led to a more inclusive process.

At any time during the process, the 38 remaining UN member countries that were not on the Commission or the Drafting Committee had the opportunity to submit their own proposals. They also received drafts for comments and had a number of opportunities to make statements in the comprehensive negotiations that took place in the UN while the General Assembly was in session from September to December 1948. NGOs with consultative status had the opportunity to participate in all meetings, while other NGOs had the opportunity to submit proposals. Even proposals from individuals were filed and passed on to the Drafting Committee. Morsink writes: "Everything indicates that most of this more or less informal non-state input was appreciated and often used." Under the final debate in the UN General Assembly on 10 December there were many congratulatory speeches. Several highlighted the inclusive process, asserting that the declaration was applicable worldwide. Rahman Kayala from Syria stated that the declaration was not "the work of a few representatives in the General Assembly or the Economic and Social Council, it was the achievement of generations of human beings who had worked towards this end. Now the peoples of the world will finally hear that their goal has been reached through the United Nations".

The Universal Declaration was adopted at midnight on 10 December 1948. The vote was 48 in favour, none against and eight abstentions.


Convention, declaration or both?


Until June 1948 most of the Commission representatives believed that the assignment was no less than to produce both a declaration and a convention (which would be legally binding on the states). The superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union, insisted, however, that the mandate was to produce a declaration or manifesto without a subsequent implementation mechanism. After intense debates, it was decided that the Commission would "only" submit a declaration. Morsink and others maintain that when looking back, what for many was deemed a failure, would indeed prove to be very important for the human rights movement. The fact that the declaration has not been woven together by means of a concrete implementation tool has given it an independent moral status in world politics.


The negotiations on Article 1


Together with the rest of the content in the declaration, the important Article 1 underwent a number of changes from the first draft to the final version. Important considerations included gender equality and whether reference should be made to God and/or nature. After long negotiations in the drafting committee in December 1947, this wording of Article 1 was submitted to the Commission: "All men are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed by nature with reason and conscience, and should act towards one another like brothers."

At this point in time the drafting committee disregarded the advice of the Dane Bodil Begtrup, who participated in the meeting in her capacity as the head of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. She proposed that the expression "all men" should be replaced by "all human beings", a view that was also supported by the Indian female representative Hansa Mehta. In a later meeting when the whole Commission was assembled, the proposal by Begtrup and Mehta was included. Their arguments had worked and the time was right for this change. "All men" was replaced with "All human beings" and "like brothers" was replaced with the slight improvement "in a spirit of brotherhood".

Mr Bogomolov, the Soviet Union representative, did not win acceptance for his view in the drafting committee. He believed that the wording was inappropriate for Article 1 as well as in the Preamble. Bogomolov was not the only one to object to what could be perceived as abstract philosophical or religious references in Article 1 (particularly "by nature"). Many Commission members in fact appeared to have been very aware of the dangers of involving philosophical, religious or ideological principles, which they obviously feared would lead to ideological conflicts. This discussion would nevertheless prove to be unavoidable. When the declaration as a whole was tabled for debate in the UN General Assembly in the autumn of 1948, the Brazilian delegation proposed that the second sentence in Article 1 should start thus: "Created in the image and likeness of God, they (all human beings, author's note) are endowed with reason and conscience." The Dutch delegation proposed wording that referred to the divine and immortal fate of human beings. They claimed that the majority of the world's population believed in God or a celestial creator, and therefore wished to have human rights based within this perspective. Many disagreed and asserted that the majority of humanity was not religious at all. Others again highlighted the simple point that as not all persons were religious, the wording might put the universal endorsement of the declaration in jeopardy. This important philosophical issue was never subjected to a vote. As the deep resistance against this proposal became clear to its advocates, it was withdrawn.2


Their own course


The obvious advantage of connecting human rights to nature or to God would be that it is easy to recognise them as universal – that all humankind has them. But the people who drew up the Universal Declaration did not share the Age of Enlightenment’s faith in a sole metaphysical source of values or morals, Morsink writes. On the contrary, as he points out, all links to God and Nature were dropped in the negotiations, and the representatives voted for a generally secular document. No reference to any overarching force or entity was permitted. In the final negotiations, to avoid precisely any reference to God, the phrase "by nature", which had been part of Article 1 through just about the entire process was also dropped.

Bearing this in mind, we should, according to Morsink, therefore not try to understand the concepts stemming from the tradition of the Age of Enlightenment (for example “inalienable” and “inherent”) within the framework of the Western rationalist tradition. The writers of the declaration did not blindly follow the precedence of the Age of Enlightenment, but staked out their own independent course. Article 1 finally became: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

The Norwegian human rights researcher Tore Lindholm believes that there is good reason to believe that the idea behind Article 1, "the very foundation and cornerstone of the Declaration", is that it should neither assert nor imply – or deny – that "the system of universal human rights is based on some kind of idea about the nature of mankind, nature itself, or God". Lindholm concludes that Article 1 "interpreted in its proper context is not based on a traditional Western natural law foundation, but rather provides the thin indispensable normative basis where representatives of many religions, moral traditions and ideologies can establish not only a political compromise, but also a non-exclusive and stable moral agreement about human rights."


The lowest common denominator


The negotiations over Article 1 illustrate an important characteristic of the Universal Declaration. It is a compromise that may serve as the object of an overlapping unanimity: Based on different standpoints, representatives of most of the world’s civilizations and religions managed to agree on the main idea, a civilizable lowest common denominator of tolerance and equality. Thus, we are back to the beginning, which is the extremely historic moment when human rights were formed. The shared destiny from the War was still keenly in focus, and the will to agree on this common goal was more important than individual backgrounds and special concerns. "The moral horror gave them a common platform from which they could operate and work," Morsink writes. Perhaps it is as simple as this: "When encountering the worst horror, mankind can see more clearly what is the right thing to do." At any rate, history shows that the Universal Declaration has passed the test of time with flying colours. Despite allegations of Western influence, authorities and activists across the world have embraced the Declaration as both an obligation and an inspiration in their day-to-day endeavours to create better living conditions for themselves and their fellow humans. In 1993, at the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, where 173 states were assembled, it was again established: "The universal nature of these rights and freedoms is beyond question." In spite of the almost 70 years that have passed, the UN Universal Declaration is by far the most important international human rights document. None equal, none better.3


Author: Lillian Hjorth. (2015). Menneskerettigheter og aktivisme, Aktive Fredsforlag (translated by John Anthony)


1Morsink, Johannes. (1999), The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Origins, Drafting and Intent, University of Pennsylvania Press

2The strongest resistance actually came from nations which towards the end of the 1940s continued to be shaped by one or more of the world's major religious traditions. If the majority had wanted, they could have joined the proposers and decided that the proposal should come to a vote, hence forcing the countries that did not want it (this would mean the Communist states) to accept a religious reference. This did not happen. Most of the "religious" delegations were open to the idea that people might have their independent approach to what are the fundamental truths, therefore accepting a secular approach.

3Sources: Galtung, Johan. (2007). Menneskerettigheter: vestlige, universelle eller begge deler? [Human rights: Western, universal or both?] Humanist forlag/publisher (first edition 2003); Hagtvedt, Bernt: Menneskerettighetserklæringen – et lykkelig moment i historien [The Declaration of human rights - a felicitous moment in history] (Chronicle in Aftenposten 1998); Hobsbawm, Eric. (1994): Ekstremismens tidsalder Det 20 århundrets historie (The Age of Extremes. The History of the 20th Century), Gyldendal; Lindholm, Tore: Article 1, Gudmundur Alfredsson and Asbjørn Eide (ed.). (1999). "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A Common Standard of Achievement", Martinus Nijhoff Publishers The Hague/Boston/London; Morsink, Johannes. (1999). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights - Origins, Drafting and Intent, University of Pennsylvania Press; Soltvedt, Lars Petter. (2007). Verdenserklæringen: tilblivelse og innhold [The Universal Declaration: Creation and content], memo.


Lillian Hjorth, Director, Human Rights Academy (Norway):
Marit Langmyr, Project Manager, Human Rights Academy (Norway)

An online manual on intercultural understanding, ethics and human rights to be used by teachers and students in journalism education. Read more.

Email :

Find Sessions

© 2017 Menneskerettighetsakademiet. All Rights Reserved.