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Fifty Years Ago in Monthly Review

A widely-held belief in the United States is that Americans lead the world in social, humanitarian, and even egalitarian thinking. More specifically, Mrs. Roosevelt and other United States representatives at the UN are thought to have extended the frontiers of human rights on the international plane. The opposite is true…In December, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” which was to be a beacon light to the world—a guide to wider freedoms and a better life….The original idea was to draw up an International Bill of Rights which every country would sign just as it signs any other international convention….At this stage, the Americans displayed a rare example of long term planning on a UN matter. They decided to split the job into two parts. The first would consist of a declaration of sound and lofty principles which would bind nobody to specific action. The second was to be a Covenant, much more restricted, which would indicate what a (United States) government would be willing to put into its laws….Faced with orders to work out a legally binding Covenant, what should the Human Rights Commission do? One of the world’s leading authorities on the subject, Professor Lauterpacht of Cambridge University, England, makes clear what should have been done[:] “There has been a wide and growing acceptance of the view that personal and political freedom is impaired—if not rendered purely nominal—unless its enjoyment is made practicable by a reasonable guarantee of social and economic freedom…An international Bill of Rights which leaves these human claims out of account is incomplete to a degree which, in the view of many, is fatal to the authority and dignity of the enactment as a whole”.…But the United States did not see it that way. It fought for and won a draft which was “fatal to the authority and dignity of the enactment as a whole.” Mrs. Roosevelt, of course, did not frankly state that the idea was to to eliminate social and economic rights….The line was that the Commission should concentrate on producing a “practical” Covenant covering a limited number of civil rights traditionally accepted in the writings of the more advanced capitalist countries….In the Human Rights Commission in 1951, the Americans will do all they can to eliminate, and in any case to whittle down, social and economic rights—the right to work, the right to social security, the right to join a trade union, the right to protection from discrimination, the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being. Thus, again to quote Professor Lauterpacht, the dominant tendency will be “to adjust the level of the International Bill of Human Rights—a basic international instrument—to the urgent domestic requirements of the United States.”

—A Special Correspondent, “The American Struggle Against Human Rights,” Monthly Review, January 1951

2001, Volume 52, Issue 08 (January)
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