Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world. – Eleanor Roosevelt
During this awful time struggling against apartheid, we were inspired by the noble sentiments contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In many ways, the Declaration became a subversive instrument available to overturn injustice, oppression, racism and unfair discrimination. It told us what our oppressors were at great pains to deny-that we had fundamental, inalienable rights that were not in the gift of some benevolent earthly ruler who could grant or withhold them as the whim moved him. – Desmond Tutu
Article 1 – Fundamental Human Rights:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Bearing a clear resemblance to the French revolutionary slogan of “liberté, equalité, fraternité,” Article 1 provides that all people are born free and equal in dignity and rights and, as a result of common birth into the human family, should treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood. The first article has been referred to as the “cornerstone” of the Universal Declaration. During the drafting process, it occupied more debate and discussion time than any other article. The words “free and equal in dignity and rights” encapsulate—without theoretical or philosophical exploration—the main foundational concepts of the Declaration and are closely linked to the themes and ideas found in the first recital of the Preamble. Accordingly, the discussion that follows below should be read in conjunction with the discussion and analysis of Preamble recital 1.
Lindholm, at 33-50.
The scholar Tore Lindholm has observed that while Article 1 justifies the existence of human rights by the fact that people are entitled to “freedom and equality in dignity and rights,” the article in no way explains the source of these universal characteristics of human beings. By omitting any reference to a Supreme Being or Nature as a source of these inherent rights, and thus by leaving enough open the space to allow for a multitude of interpretations, the drafters were able to create a document which could be accepted by the broad majority of peoples. This, in turn, supports the view that Article 1 is not a mere reiteration of Western Natural Rights Philosophy.
See further Tore Lindholm at 31-56.
For discussion on the philosophical justifications for, and the controversy over the source of, human rights, see Preamble recital 1.
“All people are born”
The word “born” means to be brought forth as offspring, or to come into the world. The reference to “born” in Article 1 was intended to reinforce the words “inherent” and “inalienable” in the first recital of the Preamble, but its meaning is nevertheless open to competing interpretations and it may be read as referring to different “births.” For example, some commentators draw a distinction between “physical birth” and “moral birth.” This latter interpretation can be understood as defining what makes an individual a member of the human family. A moral view of birth is closely connected with the assertion that man is “endowed with reason and conscience.” The words remain problematic, however, even if one chooses to read “birth” in moral terms since the question of whether moral birth is attached to physical birth remains unanswered. The answer to this question has obvious implications for the vexed issue of abortion. The drafters are not known to have made any reference to abortion when discussing the drafting of this article. (Morsink, 117).
“Free and Equal”
To be “free” means to not be bound or subject as a slave is to his master; thus enjoying personal rights and liberty of action as a member of a society or state. To be “equal,” in turn, means to possess a like degree of a (specified or implied) quality or attribute; to be on the same level in rank, dignity, power, ability, achievement, or excellence; or having the same rights or privileges. (Oxford English Dictionary)
The statement in Article 1 that people are born “free and equal” is not meant to imply that this is the actual state of affairs in the world, as was made apparent during the drafting of Article 4. The words are instead intended to be an affirmation of the inherent Rights of Man as stated in Preamble 1. One way of understanding this statement is to read it in the context of Rousseau’s famous line, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”
“Dignity and Rights”
See Preamble 1 for discussion on the meaning of “inherent dignity” and “human rights.”
“Endowed with Reason and Conscience”
To be endowed with “reason and conscience” means to be enriched or furnished with two different attributes. First, with an intellectual power or faculty (which is usually regarded as characteristic of mankind, but sometimes also attributed in a certain degree to the lower animals) which is ordinarily employed in adapting thought or action to some end, or the guiding principle of the human mind in the process of thinking. Second, with the internal acknowledgement or recognition of the moral quality of one’s motives and actions; the sense of right and wrong as regards things for which one is responsible; or the faculty or principle which pronounces upon the moral quality of one’s actions or motives. (Oxford English Dictionary)
Reason and conscience are seen as the defining attributes of being human. “Conscience” is widely regarded as what distinguishes man from animals. This aspect of Article 1 is controversial, however, since it may be read as giving rise to the implication that if a person is unable to “reason” then they are not part of the human family. This logic was in fact employed by the Nazis as one of the justifications for the Holocaust. In Mein Kampf, Hitler stated that “if the power to fight for one’s health is no longer present, the right to live in this world ends.” He did not want any “half-measures” in this respect and therefore opposed letting “incurable sick people steadily contaminate the remaining healthy ones.” The earlier Nazi practice of “euthanasia” and the later implementation of the “final solution” demonstrate the horrific realization of these ideas.
However, the main drafter, Charles Malik, meant for “reason” and “conscience” to be seen “as a function on the level of knowing.” According to Morsink, this implies that these words should be interpreted as a way of understanding that people should treat each other “in a spirit of brotherhood.” Although the drafters saw this part of Article 1 as problematic, they maintained it in the text out of respect for Malik who felt strongly about the phrase. This decision was no doubt influenced by the fact that Malik was the chair of the Committee proceedings. (Morsink, 39)
Conscience, in turn was seen as “a route into the realm of rights” according to Chang, who was the drafter on whose initiative the statement had been placed. The reference to “conscience” in Article 1 is also an echo of the phrase “the conscience of mankind’ in the second recital of the Preamble.
“Spirit of brotherhood”
To treat one another in a “spirit of brotherhood” means that individuals should, in a figurative or symbolical sense, treat each other in such a way as proper to the relation of a brother.
Concepts and Ideas
“Equality” is a concept that has been subject to philosophical investigation throughout time, as exemplified by the following literary excerpts and fragments that date from as early as the first century BC and extend, through the writings of thinkers such as Montaigne, Hobbes, Locke and Kant, to the modern day.
Vajrasuci, Attributed to Avaghosa First century B.C to first century A.D, Sanscrit
This, too, should be taken into account. Just as there is no distinction of classes among the fruits produced by one tree … in the form: ‘this is Brahmana fruit’, this is Ksatryia fruit, etc., because they are all produced by one tree, even so there is no distinction [of classes] among men because they are all created by one Supreme Being.
Montaigne Essays 1580-88
The souls of emperor and cobblers are all cast in one same mould. Considering the importance of princes’ actions, and their weight, we persuade ourselves they are brought forth by some as weighty and important causes; we are deceived: they are moved, stirred and removed in their motions by the same springs and wards as we are in ours. The same reason that makes us chide and brawl and fall out with any of our neighbors, causeth a war to follow between princes; the same reason that makes us whip or beat a leckey maketh a prince (if he apprehend it) to spoil and waste a whole province. They have as easy a will as we, but they can do much more. Alike desires perturb both a skin-worm as an elephant.
Thomas Hobbes Leviathan (1651)
Nature hath made man so equal, in the faculties of the body and mind, as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man and man is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend , as well as he.
John Locke The Second Treatise of Government (1690)
A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another, there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of Nature, and the use of the same facilities, should also be equal one amongst another, without subordination or subjunction, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.
Immanuel Kant The Principles of Political Right (1793) From Hayden 111
The civil state, then, regarded merely as a social state that is regulated by righteous laws, is founded upon the following rational principles:
1) The liberty of every member of the society as a man;
2) The equality of every member of the society as a subject;
3) The independence of every member of the commonwealth, as a citizen.
1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens
Men are born, and always continue, free and equal in respect of their rights.
Note that Article 1 bears a striking resemblance to these words, and in fact several commentators and scholars have suggested that the article was based directly on the French Declaration. (see Morsink at 115)
See UNESCO, The Birthright of Man at 268.
See also Hayden at 58, 111.
Although Article 1 bears a clear resemblance to Enlightenment thinking, its main inspiration was as a response to the discriminatory practices implemented by the Nazis during the Second World War. According to the article’s main drafter, René Cassin, the reason that Article 1 refers to liberty, equality, and brotherhood, was because these three fundamental principles had been totally disregarded during the War. Cassin explained that the reason why “equality” had been placed as the first of the series of rights was a reaction to the fact that Nazi human rights violations had begun by asserting the inequality of men before attacking their actual liberties. (Morsink at 38)
During the drafting process, several members of the Third Committee argued that the principles of equality, liberty and brotherhood had already been manifested in the French Revolution through the slogan “liberté, equalité, fraternité.” Cassin’s response to this was to suggest that the War had made such an argument dated. Cassin was referring to the fact that “[w]ithin the preceding years millions of men had lost their lives, precisely because those principles had been ruthlessly flouted.” Thus, he continued, it “was essential that the UN should again proclaim to mankind those principles which had come to extinction and should refute the abominable doctrine of fascism.” (Morsink at 39)
The drafting history of Article 1 reveals that it went through at least five versions before a final text was agreed upon by the drafters.
All men, being members of one family are free, possess equal dignity and rights, and shall regard each others as brothers.
The first version of Article 1 was presented by the initial drafter of the Declaration, John P. Humphrey. Humphrey was of the view that philosophical statements had no place among the articles of the Declaration, and instead should be placed among the recitals of the Preamble. By tracing the evolution of the article through its various versions, and by taking into account the philosophical debates that were ultimately reflected in the final text, it becomes clear that Humphrey was not the core author of Article 1. (Lindholm at 32)
For Charles Malik, the most important aspect of Article 1 was the notion of the “dignity of man.” In general, there was not much debate regarding the meaning of the terms “freedom” and “dignity.” (Lindholm at 47).
After a revision of Humphrey’s text, the article had the following wording:
All men are brothers. Being endowed with reason as members of one family, they are free and possess equal dignity and rights.
Charles Malik, the Lebanese representative, was the drafter who proposed the wording “endowed with reason.”
After being revised for the second time by the drafting committee, the recital read as follows:
All men are brothers. Being endowed with reason and conscience, they are members of one family. They are free, and possess equal dignity and rights.
Peng-Chun Chang was the drafter who proposed the word “conscience.” The Brazilian government argued out that it was not true that all men are endowed with reason and conscience. However, the main drafter, Malik, stated that his intention was for the words “reason” and “conscience” to be seen “as a function on the level of knowing.” Although the drafters regarded this part of Article 1 as problematic, they retained it in the text out of respect for Malik, who felt strongly for the phrase. This decision was no doubt influenced by the fact that Malik was the chair of the Committee proceedings. (Morsink at 39)
The next round of revisions produced the following wording:
All men are born free and equal in dignity and rights, they are endowed by nature with reason and conscience, and should act towards one another like brothers.
Although the drafters had different conceptions of the term “birth,” a majority of them being of the conviction that “a moral birth took place when people were born into the human family,” nothing was specifically stated during the drafting process on the controversial issue of abortion. (Morsink 291-2)
Eleanor Roosevelt proposed that the words “born free and equal” should be placed at the beginning of the phrase. The US representative furthermore proposed that “should act,” implying duty, should be placed at the end. Malik thought that the word “born” implied that people merely had rights when born, but that they could later loose them. The Venezuelan representative thought the wording implied that equality existed only at birth, whereas Pavlov, the delegate of the Soviet Union, stated that equality of rights before the law is “determined not by the fact of birth, but by the social structure of the state. Thus it was obvious that in the days of feudalism men had not been born free and equal.” The French representative, Grumbach, explained to the Russian that “[a]ll representatives agreed that inequality did, in fact, exist, but the statement “All human beings are born free and equal” meant that the right to freedom and equality was inherent from the moment of birth.”(Lindholm at 48)
Bogomolov of the Soviet Union complained that Article 1, as it was now constructed, was “devoid of meaning” and “that it would be an act of hypocrisy to place such a text at the beginning of a Declaration.” The Soviet representative hence pressed for the deletion of the article because of its “abstract philosophical or religious notion.” South Africa was also very critical of the article and was of the opinion that it did not define any right or freedom at all.
The representative from New Zealand argued that “the declaration should, however, state the philosophical basis of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The representative therefore proposed the following version for Article 1:
- All men are born free, equal in dignity and rights as human beings endowed with reason and conscience, and bound in duty to one another as brothers.
- All men are members of communities and as such have the duty to respect the rights of their fellow men equally with their own.
- The just claims of the State, which all men are under the duty to accept, must not prejudice the respect of man’s right to freedom and to equality before the law and the safe guard of human rights, which are primary and abiding conditions of all just government.
Although not accepted as the final text for Article 1, this proposal later became reflected in Articles 29 and 30.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards each other in the spirit if brotherhood.
In the final stages of drafting, the Commission on the Status of Women under the leadership of Bodil Begtrup influenced the drafters to the extent that the terms “men” and “like brothers” were replaced by “human beings and “in the spirit of brotherhood.” Eleanor Roosevelt expressed her doubt about the need for this change based on the argument that “it had become customary to say ‘mankind’ and mean both men and women without differentiation.” A suggestion to include a reference to “sisters” was contemplated, but decided to be unnecessary since Ralph Harry, the Australian delegate, drew attention to the fact that in the Charter there was a reference to “mankind’ and not to “mankind and woman kind.” (Morsink at 117-19)
Although the majority of the drafters recognized Article 1 as being the “credo” of the Declaration, there was serious discussion about moving it into the Preamble. One argument for doing so was posed by the Cuban delegate, Cisneros, who stated that “Article 1 of the draft was a statement of fact and not a statement of a right and that, owing to its importance, it would be better inserted in a special preamble.” The Belgian representative was of the opposing view on the basis that:
Article 1 was important as a first article of a solemn document, since it affirmed a principle in which some measure summed up the articles that followed.”
The Norwegian representative was of the same opinion, but added a legalistic argument that in
the interpretation of texts in international law … [t]he provisions of the articles had, no doubt, greater weight [than the Preamble] being as they were, definite pledges.
When the matter came to a vote, Panama, South Africa, Venezuela, Guatemala, the Netherlands, and New Zealand were for moving the article to the Preamble. With 10 abstentions and twenty-six countries opposed to such a move, Article 1 remained in its initial placement within the Declaration.
It is also interesting to note that during these debates it was as result of a Belgian proposal that the reference to “nature” was deleted, something supported by Chang because he thought it this was the best way to avoid theological debates. Although many delegates understood that any reference to “nature” was not meant to refer to the notion that human rights stemmed from nature itself, but to the fact that reason and conscience were essential attributes of being human, the reference was nevertheless dropped. The proposal to delete the word “nature” was adopted by 29 votes to four, with 9 abstentions.
Chang then proposed that all the words “they are endowed by nature with reason and conscience” should be deleted. Malik opposed this idea and argued that Article 1 should state characteristics which distinguished human beings from animals–that is, it should retain reference to “reason and conscience.” Pavlov argued that Malik’s view could indeed work since it did not need to refer to the relevant agent thereby bypassing Chang’s critique. This compromise meant that the reference to nature could be omitted, thus making the drafting of a secular document possible.
See Tore Lindholm at 31-57 (“Article 1”).
See also Morsink, Chapter 8.
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