Commission on Human Rights Verbatim Record Fourteenth Meeting [Excerpt]

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Commission on Human Rights Verbatim Record Fourteenth Meeting [Excerpt]5

4 February 1947 [Lake Success, NY]

chairman: Eleanor Roosevelt

rapporteur: Charles Malik

secretary: John Humphrey

Mr. Malik (Lebanon): Madam Chairman, I would like to make a few general observations about this paper which we have before us and about all three groups taken together, if I may.6

What interests me most concerning this question of the Bill of Rights is the whole problem of personal liberty. Now, we are wont usually to use such phrases as personal liberty and freedom of speech and opinion, freedom of information and of the press, and freedom of religious worship, etc.—we are wont to use these phrases, I think, many a time glibly, without full appreciation of the infinite importance of what these phrases really mean. I say this because, I think, if we fail in the formulation of our International Bill of Rights, it is not going to be on the grounds of failing to state explicitly the rights of the individual for food and housing and work and migration, and this, and that, but rather on the grounds of our failing to allow sufficiently for this all-fundamental problem of personal liberty.

My Yugoslav friend and neighbor the other day, in his remarkable speech, said that the social principle today comes first.7 He defined liberty as the perfect harmony between the individual and the collectivity. Another phrase he used was the identity of interests of society and the individual. Still another phrase was the identity of the rights of individuals with those of society. This is a very well-known doctrine which originally, of course, was taken from Hegel.8 Then my Yugoslav friend went on to say immediately after that, that the social principle today comes first. So, on the one hand, we have the definition of liberty as the perfect harmony between the individual and society, and on the other the affirmation that society comes first. Now, this means, as I take it, that the Socialist principle today is dominant throughout the world, or is increasingly becoming so. This is truly a mark of our age, the rise of Social consciousness in its various forms, groups becoming conscious, nations, various types of associations becoming self-conscious.

If I understand the present age correctly, this is our problem; the struggle between the human person and his own personality and freedom on the one hand, and the endless pressure of groups on the other, including, of course, his own nation.

For one must belong to a group today. He must have his identification papers. He must have social loyalties. He must belong to some association.

The claims of groups today—and especially the political group, the nation embodying itself in the institution called the state—are becoming increasingly dominant. These claims have a tendency to dictate to the person what he ought to think, what he ought to do, what even he ought to believe and hope for, concerning himself and the nature of things. The political state is becoming increasingly determinant of the very being of the person, and it does it by its laws, by psychological pressure, by economic pressure, by every possible means of propaganda and social pressure.

In my opinion, there is here involved the deepest danger of the age, namely, the extinction of the human person as such in his own individuality and ultimate inviolability, and therefore, the disappearance of real freedom of choice. Unless our Bill of Rights somehow rejects or embodies a corrective to that danger, I am afraid we will only be expressing in that Bill the dominant forces of the age without sufficient profound reflection on them.

I would like, therefore, Madam Chairman, in order to make my point as clear as possible, to submit the following four propositions which seem to me to cry for recognition by us in this Commission. These are the principles which are in deadly danger today of being forgotten or repudiated by all sorts of systems and philosophies. First, the human person—and I agree with my Belgian friend that we ought to use the word "person" rather than "individual" here,9 meaning the human being in his real concrete existence in society with all its claims and loyalties—the human person is inherently prior to any group to which he may belong. I repeat, the human being is inherently prior to any group to which he many belong, be that group his class, or his race, or his country, or his nation, or any grouping to which he may belong. He as a human person is in his own essence prior to that group. I do not mean by prior, temporally prior. There never was a Robinson Crusoe. I mean by prior, that in his own being, while belonging necessarily to a manifold of social groups, in his own being, he is prior to any or all of them.

Secondly, therefore, his mind and conscience are the most sacred and inviolable things about him, not his belonging to this or that class, this or that nation, or this or that religion. The most sacred and inviolable thing about him is his mind and conscience which enable him to see the truth and to reject or accept it and freely, therefore, to choose and be.

And in the third place, any social pressure coming from whatever direction which determines his consent automatically is wrong. Any social pressure coming from whatever direction, be that his state, or his religion, or his class, or any direction, which determines his consent automatically is wrong.

And in the fourth place, the group to which he belongs, whatever it be, be it his state, or his nation, or anything, the group can be wrong, just as the individual person can be wrong. In either case, it is only the individual person in his own mind and conscience who is the competent judge of the rightness or wrongness involved.

Madam Chairman, these are ultimate things. I believe they are the most important principles concerning which the present crisis of the world can be interpreted, and unless our proposed International Bill of Rights somehow takes account of them and reflects them, I will regard it as highly deficient.

Mr. Tepliakov (USSR)10: Madam Chairman, in connection with the remarks just made, may I say that I have to make a short observation in regard to the four principles presented by the rep-resentative of Lebanon. I had no time to analyze his remarks to see exactly what he means, but it is quite enough to hear him and to understand that he was warning this Commission not to be wrong when they make a Bill of Rights.

Immediately after, he named four principles. Most of them are quite long. I say it again, I had no time to analyze exactly what he meant, but I would say I oppose such principles or the adoption of such principles for the Bill of Human Rights which would commission rights in the future, or which would be considered at the next session.

First of all, these principles are wrong from the point of view that we are living as individuals in a community and a society, and we are working for the community and the society. The community has provided the material substance for our existence, first of all.

Another one is, if you want to put this human being under a glass cover and let him stay there, it might be possible to say about him, prior to the man or his society.

And one thing I would like you to keep in mind: at least I am right when I speak about the people of the Soviet Union; there are two hundred million people living and enjoying human rights, as they were proclaimed in the Constitution. The Soviet Constitution is not a declaration, but it is a document which fixes what already existed. That is no declaration for the future, but it is just a document which verifies the very existence of these rights. Our principle—you know this principle—is that we cannot divide the individual from the society, from the group, the community. As well, we cannot divide the community from the individual.

As far as the freedom of expression is concerned, it is quite all right, and we have it in the Constitution. We have already discussed it in the previous meeting. But, what does our Lebanon colleague mean when he says the social suppression or oppression, whatever he called it, on an individual? I really do not understand that. What does it mean? And what are the principles which are laid down here? Are you going to create by this Bill, or just proclaim some sort of society without any rule, without any law, without any regulation, for the sake of common people, for the sake of the community?

We already mentioned here, while talking about the right of human beings, the duty and obligation of this human being in regard to the community, the group among which he exists, and which is the main body which provides for his existence, and the enjoyment of the human rights which belong to him.

I repeat again that I will comment later on, after thorough examination of all these principles. But for the time being, I am against such instructions to the Commission and to the group who undertakes this task of formulating the first draft of the Bill of Human Rights.

Mrs. Mehta (India)11: Madam Chairman, this question should not be a matter of dispute. The Charter of the United Nations has already said that we are to uphold the dignity and worth of the human person. We are here to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, whether the human person comes first or the society. I do not think that we should discuss that problem now. Our object should be to uphold the dignity and worth of the human person. What are the rights which we should recognize, which will carry out this purpose? I think we should not enter into this maze of ideology at this stage …12

Chairman: I think perhaps I would like to say a word about what was said by the representative from Lebanon. It seems to me that in much that is before us, the rights of the individual are extremely important. It is not exactly that you set the individual apart from his society, but you recognize that within any society the individual must have rights that are guarded. And while we may, many of us, differ on exact interpretations, I think that is something, in writing a bill of human rights, that you have to think of rather carefully.

Many of us believe that an organized society in the form of a government, exists for the good of the individual; others believe that an organized society in the form of a government, exists for the benefit of a group. We may not have to decide that particular point, but I think we do have to make sure, in writing a bill of human rights, that we safeguard the fundamental freedoms of the individual. If you do not do that, in the long run, it seems to me, that you run the risk of having certain conditions which we have just tried to prevent at great cost in human life, paramount in various groups. So I do think that what the representative from Lebanon said should be very carefully taken into consideration when the drafting committee meets, as well, of course, as every other thing that has been said around this table …13


1. John Humphrey and the secretariat staff prepared a memorandum for the commission summarizing in list form all the rights enumerated in the solicited (and unsolicited) proposals major organizations, philosophers, activists, and jurists submitted for the commission's review (Morsink, 4-5).

2. Verbatim Record of the Thirteenth Meeting of the Commission on Human Rights, 4 February 1947, CHMP, DLC.

3. For more on the HRC Drafting Committee, see Document 235.

4. Verbatim Record of the Thirteenth Meeting of the Commission on Human Rights, 4 February 1947, CHMP, DLC.

5. Verbatim Record of the Fourteenth Meeting of the Commission on Human Rights, 4 February 1947, E/24-E/43, CHMP, DLC.

6. Humphrey organized the list of rights into three groups: the status of equality, the status of liberty, and the status of security.

7. Vladislav Ribnikar (1900?–1955), the Yugoslavian delegate on the HRC, expressed his Marxist view of the relationship between the individual and society in a speech in the HRC on January 31, 1947. "We are more and more aware," he said, "that real individual liberty can be reached only in perfect harmony between the individual and the collectivity. It becomes quite obvious, in the common interest, that this common interest is more important than the individual interest, and that man can liberate himself only when the mass of a population is free" ("Verbatim Record of the Eighth Meeting of the Commission on Human Rights," 31 January 1947, E/72, CHMP, DLC).

8. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), whose thinking greatly influenced Karl Marx, argued that as long as individuals were in conflict with each other and felt their freedom limited by others, they were not free. Freedom was only possible in a truly rational society in which a person's self-interest and contribution to the welfare of the community as a whole harmonized perfectly (OCP).

9. Roland Lebeau, the delegate from Belgium on the HRC, said in the morning session that "section 2 of the document, speaks almost entirely of the human individual and not of the human person as such, the humankind." He then went on to discuss the "rights of the family unit," such as "the right to economic security and a sufficient security to ensure independence and the stability of family life." These rights, he said, "touch the humankind, that is, [the] human individual in his life together with others. I think we ought to keep them in consideration" ("Verbatim Record of the Thirteenth Meeting of the Commission on Human Rights," 4 February 1947, E/81-E/82, CHMP, DLC).

10. Valentin Tepliakov, the Soviet representative on the HRC at the time (Glendon, 40). See header to Document 235.

11. Hansa Mehta.

12. At this point Dr. Ghasseme Ghani, the representative from Iran, argued that in countries where much of the population was still illiterate, freedom of speech and opinion could lead to instability. The UN's first priority, he contended, should be to help such countries provide equal access to education and eliminate illiteracy.

13. ER went on to comment on the ideal of freedom from want and on two specific rights in the third group on Humphrey's list: the freedom to work and the right to medical care and to conditions that promote health. She then suggested that the committee further discuss the rights in this third group.

Diplomacy, Soviet Style

By February 1947 ER had spent many hours negotiating with Soviet delegates to both the Human Rights Commission and the Third Committee. She had debated Andrei Vyshinsky and Andrei Gromyko in both the Third Committee and the General Assembly on the issue of refugees.1 In the following article, she assesses the character and strength of her opponents, seeks to understand what motivates them, and expresses hope that it will eventually be possible to work more constructively together.

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Commission on Human Rights Verbatim Record Fourteenth Meeting [Excerpt]

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Commission on Human Rights Verbatim Record Fourteenth Meeting [Excerpt]