December 10th: International Human Rights Day

9:29 am | Announcement

December 10 marks the celebration of International Human Rights Day, so chose as the date of the original United Nations adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. While human rights issues touch every individual life, Christians have long had a special interest in the defense of human dignity. This is particularly true in the case of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which was architected and written by Christians - namely members of the Christian Democratic party and parties sympathetic to them.

Outlining the development of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Dr. Allan Carlson notes here the following:

“[An] enduring legacy of postwar Christian Democracy was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The key architects of this document were: Charles Malik, an Arab Christian Democrat from Lebanon, who served in 1948 both as secretary of the Commission on Human Rights and as president of the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council; and Rene Cassin, a French specialist in international law who, while himself Jewish, was highly sympathetic toward postwar Christian Democracy. As one historian has phrased it, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is “largely identical” with the worldview expressed in Christian Democracy.”

In a speech delivered in 2000, Dr. Carlson expands on this:

This worldview had especial influence in the Economic and Social Council, which oversaw all U.N. work on issues of social policy and human rights, including the Commission on Human Rights, established in 1946. Named to head the Department of Social Affairs was Professor Henri Laugier of France, a figure sympathetic to the Christian Democratic cause. More important, though, was Charles Habib Malik of Lebanon, who became President of ECOSOC in the critical year, 1948, and who actively served on The Commission on Human Rights.

Malik was an Arab Christian with a French education and a philosopher wholly in tune with the new Christian Democratic currents. A rich Christian imagery ran through his speeches and writings, above all in his view that “there is a direct relationship between peacemaking and having the right relationship to God–the ground of being and existence.” Echoing the words of the French Christian Democratic martyr Gilbert Dru, Malik called for a fundamental Western Revolution, with “The Living God” at its core. Turning upside down the ideas of the German nihilist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, he added: “Nietzscheans humbly grounding themselves in God is what this moment of history really needs.” According to insiders, Malik would be a key actor in crafting the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Another central player was Rene Cassin, a lawyer skilled in international law, also from France. As a member of the staff of The Commission on Human Rights, Cassin took the lead role in producing successive drafts of the Universal Declaration. While himself Jewish, Cassin was sympathetic to the French MRP, and to the goals of Christian Democracy. In his own speeches and essays, he emphasized the derivation of the human rights idea from Holy Scripture. The Jews, inspired by their idea of “one God, father of all men,” held “rather early a vivid repugnance to serfdom.” Jesus and Paul taught that “there is no more distinction between Jew and Gentile, between free men and slaves. All form one large family, one human family.” Cassin emphasized that the 18th Century Human Rights Declarations (such as the French Declaration of the Rights of Man) exalted individualism, which had opened the way to abuses of liberty. Drawing directly from Christian Democratic doctrine, Cassin argued that rights and liberties of individuals must be understood “as embedded within social groups and bonds” such as “family, household, vocation, city, and nation.”

The French delegation to the Commission on Human Rights was active on the Drafting Committee for the Universal Declaration, and included several Christian Democrats, as did the delegations from Chile and Belgium. Prof. Giraud of France joined Cassin on the staff. Meanwhile, Robert Schuman, as French Foreign Minister, insured a strong Christian Democratic influence on the process from the domain of the Security Council.

[…]

Approved by the U.N. General Assembly on December 10, 1948, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was, in one historian’s judgment, “largely identical” with the value system expressed in the Christian Democratic worldview. From its use of “laicized” language of Divine origin (such as the “inherent dignity” and “inalienable rights” of man) to the use of the term “natural” to define the family to the guarantee of a “right to life” to the affirmation of a family wage, the Universal Declaration might be seen as a great triumph of the new Christian Democratic worldview.

[…]

Indeed, the only Christian Democratic theme lacking is an open affirmation of the Deity of Creation. Several members of the drafting committee, led by Charles Malik, sought inclusion of this idea. But in the end, they agreed to more universal language that implied, rather than named, God.

In sum, the Christian Democratic worldview dominated discussion of “social policy” and “human rights policy” during the founding years of the United Nations, 1946 to 1948, and it remained an intellectual force there for at least another decade. While emergence of the “Cold War” put the brake on further development of “human rights” documents, the promised international covenants on “Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” and “Civil and Political Rights,” finally issued in 1966, still affirmed that “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society, and is entitled to protection by society and the state.”

Given the Christian background of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the legacy that the document continues to represent to the world, it seems appropriate that Christians should take the opportunity on December 10th to recognize the part that Christians have played worldwide in defense of human rights and human dignity.

In recognition of International Human Rights Day, I urge Christians to share with one another the background of the development of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, to read and understand the declaration as proclaimed on December 10th, 1948 and its implications, and to encourage Christians in all walks of life to give thanks and praise to God, who is the Author and Sustainer of humanity from Whom all blessings flow, Amen.

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