60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

France and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 10 December 1948


This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This fundamental text, issued on 10 December 1948, proclaimed these rights at worldwide level for the very first time, placing the first, albeit still largely theoretical, limit on the absolute sovereignty of states. France played an important role on this occasion.

Human Rights were not of course totally ignored as far as international law was concerned before the Second World War. But the real departure point came with the Atlantic Charter proclaimed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill on 12 August 1941. As early as the Inter-Allied Conference held in London on 24 September 1941, René Cassin, the new National Commissioner of Justice and Public Instruction for Free France, declared in the name of the French national committee that “there could be no lasting international peace unless man’s essential freedoms were given practical recognition”.

As delegate of the French government, expert on commissions or relevant councils for the United Nations, and chairman of the Consultative Commission on Human Rights of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, René Cassin played a decisive role in drawing up the 1948 Declaration.

In 1946, the Economic and Social Council of the UN set up a “Commission on Human Rights”. The French government appointed René Cassin, who had in the meantime become vice-president of the Council of State, to the Commission. The new Commission set up an Editorial Committee (which included René Cassin) to prepare a draft Declaration. René Cassin presented a preliminary draft on 16 June, which was adopted as a working basis. It can be seen that his preliminary draft included the entire contents of the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, but he added to it political rights, the right to nationality, the protection of foreigners and “social, economic and cultural rights”. This latter issue became the subject of major debates and the source of the greatest difficulties in the complex drafting of the 1948 Declaration and of the subsequent conventions. But this extension of the notion of Human Rights beyond the 1789 Declaration corresponded to the development of French thinking in this field, as it had been formulated in the preamble of the 1946 Constitution.

The Commission on Human Rights produced a draft declaration in July 1948. The General Assembly of the UN examined it on 28 August. For the most part, the debates were complex. The French representative, René Cassin, played a considerable role in these discussions. The greatest difficulties arose from the Communist countries. These, especially the USSR, wanted to go much further in the definition of economic and social rights and on the rights of national minorities. On the other hand, the USSR was totally opposed to the creation of an international court of Human Rights or of any body responsible for examining petitions addressed to the United Nations. For its part France had the title “universal” declaration of Human Rights adopted, rather than the “international” declaration favoured by the British and Americans and which was obviously more limited in scope. In particular France ensured that the right to nationality, and the general right of intellectuals were included in the declaration. It did not however manage to have the right of intervention by the United Nations on behalf of stateless people and asylum seekers adopted. Finally the General Assembly of the UN, which met in session in Paris the same year, adopted the Declaration on 10 December 1948, all the members of the organisation having agreed to it, with the exception of the USSR, the Eastern European states, South Africa and Saudi Arabia, which abstained. Furthermore, the Assembly passed a resolution demanding that the Economic and Social Council urgently examine the international covenant and conventions necessary to implement the terms of the Declaration effectively, in accordance with the views of Paris.

In fact as early as May 1948, the Human Rights Commission had begun to prepare draft covenants - one of which was introduced by René Cassin - which would have given contractual form to the greatest possible number of the rights that the Declaration merely proclaimed, thereby binding the signatory States to compliance. Several drafts were prepared, but the work was slowed down by the problem that had already emerged with the Declaration: that of taking economic and social rights into consideration, since the Communist states rejected the various drafts examined, finding them inadequate on this issue. This blocked matters for many years. It was not until 16 December 1966 that, owing to Detente, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights were passed by the General Assembly; although both did not come into force until 1976. They then constituted, along with the 1948 Declaration, the “UN Charter of Human Rights”.

It is nevertheless important to note that in 1949 the various French administrations became a lot more reticent in following René Cassin in his wish to establish application conventions for the Declaration. What concerned French officials was in particular the growing tendency of the UN Assembly to use these future conventions to question the colonies, in the name of self-determination, at a time when there were growing difficulties in the French Union. The crucial point was the right of individuals or groups to “petition” the UN in the name of the Declaration. René Cassin was in favour, albeit surrounding himself with precautions, of forging ahead. The essential principle had to be the firm rejection of any distinction between Human Rights in general and those of the inhabitants of trust territories, between the rights of individuals and those of minorities: “everybody or nobody”, as he would say. In other words, the principle of universality was the best way for France to reconcile its traditional principled position and the defence of its interests. But the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Overseas Territories and Interior showed themselves to be a lot more timid, and from the end of 1949 were no longer on the same wavelength as Cassin. In any case, France did not join the international conventions relating to Human Rights until October 1980.

A delay that it has largely made up for since, and France even became, on 20 February 2007, the first country to include the abolition of the death penalty in its constitution. Indeed, on the occasion of a constitutional reform, 828 French parliamentarians voted for, with 26 against, a law that provides that “no one may be sentenced to the death penalty”.

Georges-Henri Soutou
Professor at the Université de Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV)

Last modified on 16/01/2009

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