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Rights and wrongs

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It was to be a great and safe new future.

On the spot where, just eight years before, Adolf Hitler had been photographed staring out at the Eiffel Tower having conquered most of Europe, the world’s leaders made a bold statement of intent.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by just the third General Assembly of the newly formed United Nations at Paris’s Palais de Chaillot on 10 December, 1948.



The third General Assembly of the United Nations took place at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris

The third General Assembly of the United Nations took place at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris

Its 30 articles were supposed to provide a blueprint for how states were supposed to behave in the brave new world which was emerging from the ashes of the Second World War.

The document established fundamental principles of dignity, liberty, equality and brotherhood, enshrining the right to life, the prohibition of slavery and freedom of speech.

It demanded all countries ensured individual privacy and personal freedom to act within the law, had access to justice and outlawed arbitrary arrest or detention

Forty-eight of the then 58 members voted in favour of its adoption, with none against. The other ten either abstained or failed to vote.



Forty-eight of the 58 nations at the assembly voted to adopt the declaration

Forty-eight of the 58 nations at the assembly voted to adopt the declaration

Many grand words were spoken as delegates took their turn to extol the virtues of creating a code by which all nations, if they were to be genuinely united, should abide.

Among them, US secretary of state George Marshall called it “a standard of conduct for all,” adding: “Let us as members of the United Nations, conscious of our own shortcomings and imperfections, join our effort in good faith to live up to this high standard.”

But, the cracks were there right at the beginning.



US secretary of state George Marshall (R) called on all nations to sign up to the new ‘high standard’. Eleanor Roosevelt is on the left.

US secretary of state George Marshall (R) called on all nations to sign up to the new ‘high standard’. Eleanor Roosevelt is on the left.

Six of the abstainers were from the eastern bloc, and although at the time they justified the move by saying it did not go far enough in condemning fascism and Nazism, all would later be criticised for behaving in ways that were contrary to many of the declaration’s articles.

South Africa’s objections have to be viewed in relation to its system of apartheid. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is understood to have been uncomfortable with Article 18, which states that everyone has a right to change their religion, and Article 16, which demands equality in marriage.

Notwithstanding the fact that dozens of countries were not signatories to the original declaration, either because they were not yet UN members, or had not yet won independence from the major colonial powers of the time.

Yet, initial backers included countries like China, Burma (Myanmar), Iran, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Venezuela and most of Central America.

The declaration went on to be the basis for a series of further international treaties that were signed into international law, governing civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, discrimination, torture and protection for people with disabilities, migrant workers and children.

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