Drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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John Peters Humphrey

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted between early 1947 and late 1948 by a committee formed by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Further discussion and amendments were made by the Commission on Human Rights, the Economic and Social Council and the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Members of the Commission who contributed significantly to the creation of the Declaration included Canadian John Peters Humphrey of the United Nations Secretariat, Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States (who chaired the Drafting Committee), René Cassin of France, Charles Malik of Lebanon, P. C. Chang of Republic of China,[a] and Hansa Jivraj Mehta of India among others. While not a member of the drafting committee, the French philosopher Jacques Maritain was influential in the lead up to the drafting of the Universal Declaration, advocacy for it within UNESCO in 1947–1948, and in its subsequent advancement.

Membership of the Drafting Committee[edit]

The Drafting Committee[1] included

The drafting process[edit]

John Peters Humphrey was newly appointed as Director of the Division of Human Rights within the United Nations Secretariat.[2] In this role, he produced the first draft of a list of rights that were to form the basis of the Declaration.

A portico with four columns, which Cassin saw as a metaphor for the format of his draft

The underlying structure of the Universal Declaration was introduced in its second draft which was prepared by René Cassin working from the Humphrey draft. The structure was influenced by the Code Napoleon, including a preamble and introductory general principles.[3]

Cassin compared the Declaration to the portico of a Greek temple, with a foundation, steps, four columns and a pediment. Articles 1 and 2 are the foundation blocks, with their principles of dignity, liberty, equality and brotherhood. The seven paragraphs of the preamble, setting out the reasons for the Declaration, are represented by the steps. The main body of the Declaration forms the four columns. The first column (articles 3-11) constitutes rights of the individual, such as the right to life and the prohibition of slavery. The second column (articles 12-17) constitutes the rights of the individual in civil and political society. The third column (articles 18-21) is concerned with spiritual, public and political freedoms such as freedom of religion and freedom of association. The fourth column (articles 22-27) sets out social, economic and cultural rights.

In Cassin's model, the last three articles of the Declaration provide the pediment which binds the structure together. These articles are concerned with the duty of the individual to society and the prohibition of use of rights in contravention of the purposes of the United Nations.[4]

The Cassin draft was submitted to the Commission on Human Rights and was to undergo editing in the Commission, then in further drafts considered by the Third Committee of the United Nations, and finally in a draft before the General Assembly of the United Nations, which ultimately adopted the Declaration on 10 December 1948. The vote for the declaration was 48 to 0 with eight abstentions: the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, Czechoslovakia, the People's Republic of Poland, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Union of South Africa, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.[5]


The first controversy to resolve was related to the very origin of the human rights, basically the discussion between the supporters of the concepts of natural rights (which humans are endowed by God or Nature) and positive rights (which humans acquire as a result of a rational agreement).[6]

The second controversy was basically between the positions of the Marxist theory of the Soviet Bloc and the liberal theory of the Western World. In philosophical terms, the Soviet Bloc criticized the individualist stance of the issue, arguing in favor of the collectivism approach, where the rights of the collective dominate that of an individual. In political terms, the Soviet Union and its satellites, facing mounting accusations of human rights violations, argued that the declaration is a mere formality if it would not consider guarantees of economic and social rights. However these objections were of surprisingly little consequence, because the Soviet Block was not very active during the seating of the Commission, perhaps indicating a preestablished decision not to sign the Declaration.[6]

Another issue is the legal status of the declaration. The majority considered the document to be mainly of moral character. At the same time some participants argued in favor of adding certain legal aspects in terms of international law.[6]

British representatives in particular were extremely frustrated that the proposal had moral but no legal obligation. (It was not until 1976 that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights came into force, giving a legal status to most of the Declaration) [7]

UDHR timeline[edit]

Source: United Nations Year Book 1948-1949, pp. 524 et seq


  • United Nations Conference on International Organization, San Francisco


  • 15 February, Establishment of "Nuclear Committee" of Commission on Human Rights.
  • 29 April - 20 May 1946 - First Meeting of the Nuclear Committee.
  • 21 June 1946 - The UN Economic and Social Council adopts terms of reference of permanent Commission on Human Rights


  • 27 January - 10 February - First Meeting of the Commission on Human Rights, Lake Success, New York. Drafting Committee established.
  • 9 June - 25 June - First Meeting of the Drafting Committee, Lake Success, New York. Draft outline of an International Bill of Human Rights prepared by the UN Secretariat ("the Humphrey Draft"). Drafting Committee splits work into two documents: preparation of a declaration of human rights and a working paper on a draft international convention on human rights.
  • 2 December - 17 December - Second Session of the Commission on Human Rights, Geneva. Commission begins to consider work on three projects: a declaration on human rights, and international convention on human rights and measures for implementation and enforcement


  • 3 May - 21 May, Second Session of the Drafting Committee, Lake Success, New York.
  • 24 May - 18 June, Third Session of the Commission on Human Rights, Lake Success, New York. Commission adopts a draft Declaration and transmits it to the Economic and Social Council.
  • 26 August, Economic and Social Council transmits draft to the General Assembly.
  • 30 September - 7 December, Third Committee of General Assembly spends 81 meetings considering the Declaration. 168 resolutions for amendments to the draft, submitted and considered.
  • 1–4 December, Sub-committee of Third Committee charged with cross checking 5 official language versions.
  • 10 December, Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly


  1. ^ The Declaration was drafted during the Chinese Civil War. P.C. Chang was appointed as a representative by the Republic of China, which was recognised as the government of China at the time.


  1. ^ Drafting Committee, Dag Hammarskjöld Library Research Guides
  2. ^ Johannes Morsink, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, University of Pennsylvania Press, p 5
  3. ^ Glendon, pp 62-64
  4. ^ Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Chapter 10
  5. ^ "default". ccnmtl.columbia.edu. Retrieved 2019-07-09.
  6. ^ a b c "РАЗРАБОТКА ВСЕОБЩЕЙ ДЕКЛАРАЦИИ ПРАВ ЧЕЛОВЕКА (1946–1948 ГГ.)", Глен Джонсон (Glen Johnson ), Развитие личности no. 3, 2014
  7. ^ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Final authorized text. The British Library. September 1952. Retrieved 16 August 2015.

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