The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at Seventy: Juridical and Historical Perspectives

On December 5, 2018, the Myth of Homogeneity (MoH) Team at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, along with the Geneva Academy of Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, organised a seminar on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The event brought together historians and international lawyers discussing the background, main characteristics and legacy of the UDHR. The one-day seminar was closed by a public lecture by Philippe Sands on the ‘Individual and the group: the UDHR and the Genocide Convention at 70’.

The symposium was also the occasion to present some preliminary results from the MoH’s project. Emmanuel Dalle Mulle and Mona Bieling opened the day with a paper on ‘The Ambivalent Legacy of Minority Protection for Human Rights’, where they argued that the current literature on the history of human rights tends to paint too stark a contrast between the minority protection system of the League of Nations and the human rights regime put in place under the aegis of the United Nations after the Second World War. In this perspective, and mostly on account of its collective character, interwar minority protection is often portrayed as being incompatible with human rights—these latter being conceived of as having an exclusively individual nature. The paper develops three critiques of the current literature.

First, while it is correct to highlight the discontinuity between the League and the UN rights systems, this interpretation loses sight of the fact that the minorities treaties contained a hybrid bundle of rights mixing individual and collective provisions and extended some rights to the entire population of the countries concerned, while at the same time reserving others for members of minority groups. Hence, the minorities treaties were a pragmatic and sui generis scheme rather than a theoretically coherent whole, but one that, as other authors have noticed, allowed interwar supporters of human rights to see the universalist provisions contained in them as a model for the adoption of human rights instruments.

Second, authors focusing on the 1940s ‘triumph of individual human rights’ tend to overlook the fact that the first human rights instrument ever adopted by the General Assembly (a day before the UDHR) was the Genocide Convention, a legally binding treaty defending group rights that, although it did not openly mention minorities, was drafted with those in mind.

Third, the ‘triumph of individual human rights’ perspective fails to notice the continuing currency of some of the most distinctive elements of the minority protection regime during the negotiations of the Genocide Convention and the UDHR. As a matter of fact, the countries of the Soviet bloc, joined by a few others, strove to obtain the inclusion of an article on cultural genocide in the homonymous Convention, as well as of provisions on protection against assimilation within the Declaration. Although they did not manage to pass their amendments, and their commitment might have been more the product of incipient Cold War politics than a sincere dedication to the minority cause, their struggle is an unmistakable reminder that, despite the failure of the League’s system, some clauses of interwar minority protection still enjoyed support among a substantial share of state representatives in the late 1940s.

For a more extensive description of the event and the full programme click here.