This post marks International Human Rights Day on the 10 December, the anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I write this from Ukraine, where I am the lone historian among a group of international lawyers gathered to debate how human rights law can best address the crises Ukraine faces and will face once the war with Russia is over.
I seem to be trapped between law and history, fielding questions of relevance, scope, and impact. It is the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and I spend most of my time insisting that while the Declaration has not stopped all wars, defended all peoples, or anticipated the dangers of global warming and artificial intelligence, it has not failed and that its potential impact increases daily – especially in Ukraine.
I continue to insist that its history gives us the roadmap the world needs to address those who argue visions have no power and that the Declaration may not be as essential as it was seventy-five years ago.
The drafters of the Declaration confronted the most pervasive horror the world had experienced. Negotiating its thirty articles was an outcry of fear and hope, fueled by the enduring nightmare of a global war and the determination to prevent another worldwide conflict: forty-five million civilians and fifteen million soldiers killed. Twenty-five million soldiers wounded, and forty-five million civilians injured. More than eleven million murdered and tortured in concentration camps. Fifty-plus million refugees jammed in camps across Europe. The unimaginable destruction of the atomic bomb. All in the looming shadow of the Treaty of Versailles that was supposed to make the world safe for democracy, but instead gave rise to a race-based tyranny, jumpstarted a global depression, and provoked yet another world war in its wake.
The struggle to draft and adopt the Declaration under those conditions is what gives me hope as I sit writing this post in a war zone.
Presenting a declaration on human rights to the world was not a forgone conclusion. Dumbarton Oaks obscured its offhand references to human rights, revealing instead the Great Powers’ focus on the security council and other governing bodies of the United Nations they wished to control. Its omission provoked a global movement from nations, large and small, left out of these discussions. India, the Philippines, Liberia, and other West African nations demanded human rights be recognised. Latin nations convened in Mexico City to submit their own draft declaration. Religious, civil and women’s rights groups, and hundreds of governmental organisations arranged campaigns to press their governments to correct this dismissal. All insisted that the United Nations Charter be grounded in human rights principles. In spring of 1945, when the allied nations gathered in San Francisco to draft the charter, more than one thousand human rights advocates joined them there to monitor their work. Their pressure and expertise ensured that the Charter recognise the primal importance human rights play in securing peace and building stable nations.
When the General Assembly created the human rights commission, there was no guarantee that a declaration would be written, must less adopted. It rejected the nuclear committee’s recommendation to appoint eighteen renowned human rights thinkers, decreeing instead that 18 nations should appoint their own diplomats to the drafting committee. These initial delegates did not agree on whether God or private property exists, what the purpose of government is, who citizens are and what duties they have, what nationality means, and whether political, civil, economic, or social rights exist. Yet after more than 3000 hours of intense, often hostile, negotiation spread over two-and-a-half years, prodded and goaded by the astute and persistent leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, they hammered out their differences and presented the General Assembly with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Against the recurring nightmare of the Holocaust, fascism, racism, atomic warfare, and economic instability, they managed to hear the pleas of activists, arguments of their fellow commission members, and demands of their own governments to craft a declaration that gave the world a new vision.
Which brings me back to Ukraine, law, and history.
Like the drafters of the Declaration, Ukraine dared create a new government grounded in law and rights. In the hangover of war, it drafted a new constitution and dared to become an independent state respectful of rights and its citizens. This was hard and dangerous work – which is far from completed. Dangerous domestic challenges remain. Its steps toward human rights provoked both domestic criticism and a violent invasion.
It is not a foregone conclusion that Ukraine will win this battle. It is this history that brought us here and that it is the history can lead us. It teaches us that that international law can be violated, treaties can be reversed, and multinational organisations can become bloated, and turf ridden while it also shows that rights expand and contract, only to expand again as restrictions are challenged.
So here in Ukraine, I acknowledge this gap between the Declaration’s goals and the legal debates over how to defend and execute them. I leave here more emboldened than when I came. Galvanised by the Declaration’s drafters and even more convinced of its power to move nations toward its vision and to guide lawyers in their work to making that vision real. Fully aware of the courage it imparts and the responsibility it demands of us.