Beyond National Sovereignty: How to Protect Citizens From Their Own Government

To make the work more efficient, a smaller group immediately set to work on Humphrey’s draft, a set of 48 articles that became known as the Humphrey Draft.1 The drafting committee met for the first time in June 1947, and its first task was whittling down Humphrey’s long list to something the permanent Human Rights Commission would approve.2

Not all issues were easily resolved. Consider, for instance, the right to freedom of movement. Those who live under democratic governments take for granted their ability to choose where to live, a freedom that also facilitates the movement of workers according to market shifts. But for the USSR delegate, Vladimir M. Koretsky, the inclusion of such a right would undermine a command economy, in which the state decided how labor was assigned. More importantly, telling workers they had a right to move from place to place as they wished, he argued, interfered with the principle of national sovereignty. In other words, it amounted to telling a sovereign state what to do inside its own borders, which he adamantly rejected. While national sovereignty in its ideal form was designed to protect the right of every nation to choose its own destiny, many states committed crimes against their citizens while essentially telling other states to mind their own business.

Still later, when the full Human Rights Commission met for the second time in Geneva late in November 1947, the idea of creating a United Nations International Court of Human Rights upset those who feared that the human rights project would unsettle the authority of the states. The Yugoslav delegate, Ribnikar, warned against attempting to make the United Nations a world government that superseded national sovereignty.3

Humphrey later reflected that the Soviet delegate’s complaints “had, of course, hit the nail right on the head. One purpose of both drafts was to protect individuals from their governments. If the protection of human rights did not mean that, it did not mean much.” The struggle for human rights, he stressed, “has always been and always will be, a struggle against authority.”4

Recent events had left no question that the power of the state had to be curbed. As Raphael Lemkin proved in his furious attempts to outlaw genocide and racial violence, the Nazis had not violated existing international laws when they stripped Jews of citizenship, confiscated their property, and sent them to concentration camps.5 Even the prosecutors at the postwar Nuremburg trials, who worked with outdated international laws, were only able to determine that Nazi officials violated international law with the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of the war. So when USSR delegate Vladimir M. Koretsky complained that the commission threatened to interfere with the power of sovereign states, René Cassin’s reply was sharp:

I must state my thoughts very frankly: the right of interference is here; it is in the [United Nations] Charter . . . Why? Because we do not want a repetition of what happened in 1933, [when] Germany began to massacre its own nationals, and everybody . . . bowed, saying “Thou art sovereign and master in thine own house.” 6

This would remain the most sensitive question addressed by the commission. Even once the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, getting states to comply with its requirements would often prove impossible. Many states resisted, and eventually killed, efforts to monitor their human rights records. But what was the point of toiling over international agreements if the signatories all preserved the final say on human rights within their borders? Can internationalism mean anything if no one is willing to surrender some authority to the group?


  • 1 : Morsink, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 5.
  • 2 : Glendon, A World Made New, 56.
  • 3 : Ibid., 73–74.
  • 4 : Ibid., 74.
  • 5 : American Anthropological Association, “Statement on Human Rights,” American Anthropologist 49, no. 4 (1947): 539. In June 1999, the American Anthropological Association issued a “Declaration on Human Rights and Anthropology” reconciling its position with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It reads, in part, “Thus, the AAA founds its approach on the anthropological principles of respect for concrete human differences, both collective and individual, rather than the abstract legal uniformity of Western tradition. In practical terms, however, its working definition builds on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights . . . and other treaties which bring basic human rights within the parameters of international written and customary law and practice. The AAA definition thus reflects a commitment to human rights consistent with international principles but not limited by them.” See American Anthropological Association, “Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights,” available at the American Anthropological Association website (accessed December 19, 2009). PART III: Negotiating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 203
  • 6 : “The White Man’s Burden” was the title of a poem written by Rudyard Kipling in 1899, at the height of European colonialism. It calls on Westerners to take up the challenge of civilizing the primitive peoples of the world, opening with the following lines:

    Take up the White Man’s burden—
    Send forth the best ye breed—
    Go, bind your sons to exile
    To serve your captives’ need;
    To wait, in heavy harness,
    On fluttered folk and wild—Your new-caught sulle


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