The Human Rights Commission, composed of 18 United Nations members representing different political, religious, and national backgrounds, met for the first time in January 1947. During this session, its members debated the relationship between the individual and society. The debate was not an abstract one. On one side were delegates whose systems of government placed individuals at the center and sought to ensure their freedoms from interference by the state. On the other side were delegates from countries whose systems of government emphasized the importance of society over the individual. In between the two camps were delegates, including Eleanor Roosevelt, who endorsed a compromise between these seemingly opposing views. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, in particular, sharpened disagreements about individual freedoms and government power.
In February 1947, John Humphrey, a Canadian who also served as the permanent head of the United Nations Division of Human Rights, and his staff were tasked with writing a preliminary draft of an International Bill of Rights. The Drafting Committee was later enlarged to include the members of the Commission on Human Rights for Australia, China, Chile, France, Lebanon, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
This process involved extensive research of “all the world’s existing constitutions and rights instruments, as well as suggestions that had poured in to the Secretariat from members of the Commission, outside organizations, and even from various interested individuals.”
At the same time, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) set up a Committee on the Theoretical Bases of Human Rights to study the world’s cultures, sending questionnaires to experts around the globe. Replies from scholars, philosophers, and political activists indicated that some rights were protected by all cultures.
While few challenged the UNESCO study’s basic conclusion that the idea of human rights was universal, criticisms quickly arose. What was the basis for human rights? When and how did the concept of human rights originate? Some critics of the document began to suggest that any search for universal traits would obscure the diversity of cultures around the world. However powerful these arguments were, World War II and the Holocaust had shown the danger of accepting one group’s claim to superiority over others. Many held that in the aftermath of such events, the need to protect what individuals did share trumped the safeguarding of differences between cultures.
The UDHR is based on the belief that there is something basic and universal (across time, geography, language, and culture) that connects all human beings. As Mary Ann Glendon, the US ambassador to the Vatican and the author of A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, explains, the universality of human rights
is an idea that comes out of Western traditions, but even though that idea and the form and style can be said to be Western, it is impressive that in 1947 and 1948 representatives of Asian cultures, nine countries with predominantly Muslim populations, along with Latin America, Europe and the United States—all those representatives were able to sign on to those principles as universals.