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In writing the UDHR in 1948, the Commission for Human Rights of the UN did not exactly invent the concept of respect for people. For centuries, the major religions and great philosophies have, each in their own ways, in each context, attempted to better organise society so as to make justice reign there. Even if , in certain cases, their laws seem tough to us, even cruel; today they tend however to substitute norms of personal vengeance with no limits, and find a way for humans to live in better conditions together.

We site here certain examples, presented very sketchily. We do not pretend to expose here complex doctrines, but to underline the concern for the well-being or the rights of humans that is found in each of them, to differing degrees, and in just as different forms (laws, philosophical theories, ethics).


Example : The BIBLE (Middle East)

This collection of stories and laws from different periods tells of the origin of the people of Israel. Since the end of the Second Millennium BEFORE CHRIST, the Tribes formed a confederation which was founded on a common law, Moses’ Law (the Thora), which organised people’s lives, and sanctioned severely the one who transgressed it. Numerous measures protected the foreigner, the weak, punished murder, theft, false witness. Later David declared 11 virtues which attempted to protect each human among which was justice, the horror of slander, horror of meanness, respect for the just, ...


Example : Traditional AFRICAN Societies

A certain form of democracy existed there. Surely the respect due to the Ancestor may seem constraining: the young and women were not allowed to question its authority. But the priority is accorded to the COMMUNITY. The King, the Chief, are the servants of the order necessary in this community. An ambitious person would not know how to serve the group, The decisions were not just whims of the Chief. They resulted from a consensus of the whole. The Chief sticks to presiding over it, and giving the say to the elders. He was not even supposed to indicate his preferences.


BUDDHA (India, 6th Century BC)

Buddha wanted, above all else, the well-being of Humankind. He preached Love and Respect for others. "That all beings be happy. That they be in joy and confidence… Let no one deceive another or harm another being no matter how small; let no one, through anger or hate, wish ill of another …"

"The one who in this world makes living creatures suffer … let that one be considered an outcast."

He laid down a certain number of recommendations to enable humans to reach Universal Love, not by force, but by following the most exacting path, to learn to perfect oneself.

CONFUCIUS (China, 6th Century BC)

For him, the "realised" or "enlightened" being practices "Jen" (perfect human virtue: to love. That which we do not want, we should not do to others) and "Ji" (duty of justice in inter-human relationships).

For him, it is in Society, in the heart of civilisation, that the humanity of human beings is accomplished but Society must not crush humans. Here is the attitude, according to him, that the Prince must have towards his people: "That that which we ask of them be simple and clear. And that we begin by doing it in front of them. That we begin by paining, never letting oneself be stopped by fatigue, before fulfilling the call to duty. Then they must be enriched. And then? Educated. And at all costs gain their confidence. The Prince must not worry about not having a big population, but that the riches be equally shared. He must not worry about being poor, but of not being in accordance with them. "He preached a "safe middle ground": no excess, no partiality.


Christ is located in what his followers see as the prolongation of the Thora (Old Testament). [*Jewish people may not agree with this.]  But he deepened the meaning by raising up the attitude of Love for Humankind rather than obeying laws. He brought out the importance of the person over institutions. ("The Sabbath was made for men, and not man for the Sabbath." Signifying that the rite was secondary).

Saint Paul who cited the words of Christ in his writings, declares that there is no difference that can be the foundation of an inequality (man/woman, Greek/Barbarian, slave/freeman, Jew/Gentile).

Inspiring themselves from Christ’s predictions of Love, in the ensuing centuries, Christians came to the aid of the needy: creating schools, hospitals.


The idea of Human Dignity is very strong in Islam. It is founded on the idea that humans are the "Emissaries" of God: there is a mission and a responsibility on Earth.

The Koran also affirms the idea of Equality. "All are equal among humankind as are the teeth of a weaving comb." Equality and the duty to help the needy.

Human Liberty is also situated in a religious perspective. The Koran improved the condition of women compared with what it was at the time.

Like the Bible, it raises a certain number of laws for protecting the weak, punishing theft, murder, etc. [* Actually it is the Koran that considers Mohammed’s story to be a prolongation of the Thora and the Gospels.]


THE GREEKS (6TH and 3RD Centuries BC)

It was in Athens that Democracy 6 centuries BEFORE CHRIST was established (slavery was not even contested at this time).

Several philosophies, among which the "Sophists" (5th C. BC) denounced slavery by leaning on the notion of natural rights and declaring the idea of a Universal Nature which got the upper hand over local particularities.

Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) in the Treaty "Politics" studies the different types of human relations and forms of government (monarchy, democracy…) and attempts to indicate the government the most suited to the common good.

In the 3rd century BC the "Stoiciens" brought out the idea of the Human Community, while insisting on the value of the individual.

Plato (427 – 348 BC) in The Republic debates the questions of Justice.

GROTIUS (1583 – 1645)

Dutch jurist, known for his "De jure belli ac pacis", code of the International People’s Rights relating to war, which got him the name "Father of the People’s Rights".


They directly prepared the ideas that inspired the French Declaration of 1789:

Marivaux and Beaumarchais, when they denounce the requisition of money by the State and of class in human relations.

The Encyclopedists for whom Wisdom (Sciences, Arts, Philosophy, Medicine) was the most powerful liberation of humankind.

Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire, who were the forerunners of a School of Thought which endeavoured to be UNIVERSAL. Voltaire, in particular, who stood up against Injustice (Calas Affair).

Beccaria ( 1738 –1794 ) Italian philosopher and economist who published in 1764 "Treaty of the Transgressions and Their Punishments". He declares that the experience of 20 centuries proves the Death Penalty is of no real use. He started an Abolitionist movement and many controversies. If Beccaria’s theses were pushed down, the reactions caused by them was profound and certain jurists would rethink the problem.

Altogether Exceptional Personalities jumped centuries to advance the place of the Individual in the face of the power of the Church.

For example, Bartholomé de Las Casas (XVI Century) who fought to defend the cause of the Native Americans persecuted and exterminated by the Spanish invaders following the conquest of the New World.

Gandhi (1863 – 1948) in India who liberated his country from English domination by using the "weapon" of non-violence (see document in appendix)

The Second World War brought a turning point to the attention paid to Human Rights.

Faced with massacres perpetrated by supposedly "civilize" nations, the need was felt to write an International Statute of Human Rights, and above all organise a means to fight against the influx of war. The creation of the United Nations (UN) answered these needs. The United Nations’ Charter was signed throughout the San Francisco Conference in June 1945. It brought out four principles altogether new at the time:

Sovereign Equality Among States.

Outlawing all aggressive warfare and the obligation for States to seek peaceful means to work out their differences.

The duty of the States go unite their efforts to up the standard of living for all peoples.

The will to propagate respect for Human Rights and fundamental freedom for all.


Since the San Francisco Conference, the idea of writing a Universal Declaration of Human Rights was accepted. The UN Human Rights Commission initiated primarily by the widow of President Roosevelt and René Cassin went to work preparing it, in the Autumn of 1946.

It will be drafted by René Cassin and submitted to the full Assembly at the United Nations December 10th, 1948 (at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris). It was adopted by 48 votes for versus 8 abstentions: USSR, Belarus, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland (in other words the Eastern Block), Saudi Arabia and South Africa (1948: year zero of Apartheid).

This Declaration is not a Convention. It has ONLY a moral force. It is only still an "ideal to attain collectively by all peoples and all nations."

But in fact its influence has been considerable: any State that joins the UN must agree with this text.

It is interesting to repeat here what René Cassin wrote in "Le Monde" newspaper December 14, 1948:

"The Soviet delegation was always of the opinion that the application of the principles of the Declaration should be left up to each State to do with "as they saw fit". They always showed great wariness not only towards the "International Court of Human Rights" proposed by Australia, but also toward any conciliatory organisation in charge of examining petitions dealing with Human Rights addressed to the United Nations. Evoking monstrous abuses given rise by the absolute sovereignty vindicated by Hitler since 1933, in favour of the Third Reich as opposed to its immigrant population has not been enough, thus far, to dislodge obvious repugnance for the international community overseeing, even amicably, primarily but not essentially "domestic" affairs. No doubt nothing short of an immense and impartial effort must be done to dissipate such wariness. Between international anarchy and world government, there are different degrees."

Even today, it is this reticence on the part of certain countries in the face if international non-management that makes this fight for the respect of Human Rights so difficult.


So that the principlas evoked in the UDHR be applied, the UN elaborated a great number of pacts and conventions:

the 2 great pacts of 1966:

. the Pact relating to Civil and Political Rights

. the Pact relating to Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

the Convention relating to the Refugee Status (1951)

the Convention against Torture and Cruel Treatment or Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (1989)

the Convention relating to Children’s Rights (1989) [*Signed by all countries except USA]

The Second Optional Protocol pertaining to the International Pact relating to Civil Rights and Political Rights aiming at abolishing the Death Penalty (1989)

The respect for pacts and treaties is obligatory for the States that ratified them. These States must then, if need be, adapt their legislation to render it compatible with these international texts. Where no internal legislation exists, a pact or convention does not create rights susceptible to being invoked by an individual versus the State, even if this State adheres to this particular pact or convention. It must be known: States can ratify with reservations.

The UN has now an arsenal of texts of quality at its disposal on whom defenders of Human Rights can lean. But international justice should have courts that can ensure the fulfilment of the engagements the respective governments took, and that punishes transgressions.

This exists in Europe where the European Court of Human Rights actually condemns States that do not act according to the texts they have signed, and is being developed for American and African States.

"For 30 years now, Amnesty International has not ceased to repeat that violators of Human Rights should be brought before the courts, if we want to at last break the viscous cycle of crime and impunity in the World. Impunity engenders disrespect for the Law, which opens the way to new violations committed with even more impudence by agents of the State which place themselves above the Law" (AI Report, 1995).

An International Penal Court for ex-Yugoslavia was put into place by the UN Security Council in 1993. Then another Court was in charge of judging the perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda (1994).

"The establishing of these two courts is progress. But they answered needs that were more or less short-term in only two places in the world. The creation of a permanent International Penal Court, responsible for judging serious violations of Human Rights wherever they are perpetrated, remains a pressing need." (Extract from AI Report, 1995). This court was actually conceived by the UN right from the end of World War II.

On this point, a great step was taken: the 17th of July 1998 in Rome, under the banner of the United Nations, 120 countries of the 147 represented finally adopted the Statute of an International Court. This court would be able to judge genocide, and other crimes against humanity and crimes of war.

This project still needs to be improved, but, above all, this Court will not be created until the Statute is ratified by 60 countries. Unfortunately, it will take a few years, the 800 odd NGO’s (non-governmental organisations) who have been mobilised to achieve this first result have not really finished the fight.


This position was created in 1994. One of its primordial functions is to co-ordinate all the initiatives of different institutions which defend Human Rights which make up the system of the United Nations:

The Centre for Human Rights (Geneva)

The UN Program for Development – UNPD (New York)

The Departments of the Operations to Maintain Peace, Humanitarian Affairs, and Political Affairs (New York)

The Division for the Promotion of Women (New York)

The Service for the Prevention of Crime and Penal Justice (Vienna)

UNESCO (Paris)

The High Commissioner, by going to various countries listens to what the local Non-Governmental Organisations have to say, considering this to be part of the mission. These organisations, by giving the High Commissioner this information of Human Rights in their respective countries, actually play a major role.

Ever since its creation in 1994 until the present time, its effectiveness has not been proved. Only time will tell if the new High Commissioner, Mary Robinson, will give the position a bigger impact.


"The UN Human Rights programs suffer from a chronic lack of resources; this renders the accomplishment of the immense work necessary for obtaining several results almost impossible, in the countries where violations are more blatant and systematic. By refusing to fix a sufficient budget, the member States seem to be preventing the UN Human Rights Program from functioning normally." (Extract from the AI Report, 1995)

Despite slight rises in 1993 and 1994, less than 2% of the total UN Budget is allocated to the Centre for Human Rights. This is why tremendous work remains to be done with each State in the World to convince the UN to give it the means to let it defend Human Rights.


The inter-governmental Organisations have showed themselves to be largely incompetent in defending Human Rights. Non-governmental associations needed to be created to bring their participation. Each one concentrates its efforts on a different aspect of Human Rights because it would be impossible to handle all of it.

To name a few:

Amnesty International, whose action is largely to do with civil and political rights: fight for freedom of thought and expression, against unlawful imprisonment, against torture, "missing persons and executions without fair trial", and against the Death Penalty.

In France:

The Human Rights League, founded at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, deals with all the rights mentioned in the Universal Declaration.

The ACAT: Association of Christians Against Torture, fight also against the Death Penalty.

ATD Fourth World fights against misery and for the recognition of the dignity of each person by educating them to mobilise for those less well off than themselves.

The MRAP fights against any form of racism and for friendship between peoples. It largely contributed to make France adopt the anti-racist law of July 1st 1972 and uses it to constitute civil part in numerous cases to legally defend victims of racism.

In many countries associations exist that defend Human Rights. Often they are isolated militants who do not even have the right to assemble in associations. In countries victim of the consequences of a violent conflict or a dictatorship, Human Rights play a decisive role.

While unions and political parties have been banned, parliaments abolished and the press muzzled, they remain the only power between the State and the population.

They are the only ones who can alert international associations like Amnesty. But they are usually persecuted, arrested, tortured or deprived of work then watched, followed and illegally under surveillance. If it be in China or Cuba, in several Latin American countries, in Turkey, in Syria, in Africa, or even in France … these militants for Human Rights play a determining role at the peril of their lives.

All these associations live only because of militants, often benevolent, keep them alive. All these courageous militants prove, by their recognised effectiveness, that each person, where they are, can work to defend Human Rights and to help those who suffer the worst infringements of these rights.

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