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Human Rights Declaration Turns 70


1. . Eleanor Roosevelt, chairwoman of The Human Rights Commission, and 2. Dr. Charles Malik, chairman of the General Assembly’s Third Committee, during a press conference after the completion of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, Paris, Dec. 7, 1948. Photo by UN PHOTO/X.

On Dec. 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a historic document of 30 articles affirming an individual’s rights. Eleanor Roosevelt believed that the document would have the same type of influence on global society that the Declaration of Independence had within the U.S., and, thus, supported calling it a declaration versus a treaty. Although not legally binding, the declaration has been adopted by or has influenced most national constitutions since 1948. Today, it stands as the world’s most translated document, offered in 370 languages and dialects.

In his 2018 Peace Proposal, “Toward an Era of Human Rights: Building a People’s Movement,” SGI President Ikeda spoke of the UDHR’s anniversary. Following is an excerpt.

As the history of the 20th century with its two world wars illustrates, the incitement of contempt and enmity toward certain groups of people can result in tragedy on an unimaginable scale. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in December 1948, three years after the U.N.’s founding, was a crystallization of the wisdom gained from those bitter lessons. It is vital, then, that we once again affirm the spirit of the Declaration in order to find a resolution to the various human rights issues we face today, including discrimination against migrants and refugees.

In June 1993, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. John P. Humphrey (1905–95), who helped draft the Declaration in his capacity as the first director of the U.N. Human Rights Division. In discussing the significance of the UDHR, Dr. Humphrey spoke movingly of his personal life experiences and the discriminatory treatment he had experienced.

“When Dr. Humphrey personally gifted me a facsimile of the draft of the Declaration, each handwritten letter seemed to shine with the prayer of one who sows seeds for a future where all may live in dignity.”

Born in Canada, Dr. Humphrey was touched by tragedy from a young age, losing both his parents to illness. He also suffered a grievous injury in a fire that resulted in the loss of his arm. Separated from his siblings, he attended a boarding school where he was repeatedly tormented by other students. The Great Depression struck soon after Dr. Humphrey’s graduation from university and just one month after his marriage to his wife.
Although he managed to stay employed, he was pained at the sight of the multitudes of jobless around him. He also witnessed fascist oppression firsthand during his days as a researcher in Europe in the late 1930s, and this intensified his sense of the need for international legal protection for the rights of all people.

On one occasion, Dr. Humphrey reflected on his pride in the fact that the UDHR guaranteed not only the civil and political rights of the people but also their economic, social and cultural rights.[1]Seikyo Shimbun, “Kokka no shimin kara sekai no shimin e.” I am sure that his personal background and life experiences had a great influence on his work to help draft and compile the Declaration.

He stressed that the UDHR was the result of a collaborative effort and that it owed some degree of its prestige and importance precisely to the fact that its authors retained their anonymity. Perhaps this is why his contributions remained largely unknown, even after retiring from his 20-year post as director of the U.N. Human Rights Division.[2]See Humphrey, “The Dean Who Never Was,” McGill Law Journal, vol. 34, no. 2, p. 197.

Even so, when Dr. Humphrey personally gifted me a facsimile of the draft of the Declaration, each handwritten letter seemed to shine with the prayer of one who sows seeds for a future where all may live in dignity. Over the years, the SGI featured this draft of the UDHR as part of its exhibition “Toward a Century of Humanity: An Overview of Human Rights in Today’s World” and at other similar events.

I was able to meet Dr. Humphrey for a second time in September 1993, during this exhibition’s first international showing in Montreal, Canada. The promise I made to him that day—to transmit the spirit of the Universal Declaration to future generations—remains with me still. WT


Commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1968, UNESCO published Birthright of Man, a collection of inspiring quotes on human rights.

Among them were these words by Nichiren Daishonin: “Even if it seems that, because I was born in the ruler’s domain, I follow him in my actions, I will never follow him in my heart” (“The Selection of the Time,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 579).

SGI President Ikeda writes of Nichiren’s indomitable proclamation: “Spiritual freedom epitomizes the very heart of Nichiren Daishonin, who waged a tireless struggle for the happiness of the people against the devilish nature of authority.

“The hearts of those enlightened to the highest truth of the Mystic Law cannot be controlled by even the most powerful secular authority. Even if their spirit may appear for a time to be shackled and oppressed by the powers that be, they continue to wage an unceasing inner struggle that eventually severs all chains and allows them to achieve a brilliant spiritual victory in this world. This triumph of human dignity and the sanctity of life is what will lead to the realization of a peaceful and prosperous land based on the correct teaching” (May–June 2011 Living Buddhism, p. 51).


Notes   [ + ]

1. Seikyo Shimbun, “Kokka no shimin kara sekai no shimin e.”
2. See Humphrey, “The Dean Who Never Was,” McGill Law Journal, vol. 34, no. 2, p. 197.