The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Post-Stalin
After the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the General Assembly of the United Nations called on its member states to promote dissemination and explanation of the Declaration ‘chiefl y in schools and other educational institutions.’ I do not know how carefully this Declaration is studied in Soviet schools, or if its studied at all - I know that the contents of the Declaration are generally familiar to people acquainted with samizdat publications.
Valerii Chalidze, written for the Human Rights Committee, December 10, 1970 Historians, political scientists, and human rights activists have focused on the ways that the Declaration acted as an umbrella under which disparate Soviet groups from atheist physicists to Baptist workers to Caucasian nationalists could gather to fi ght the repressive government. However, the Declaration served as a tool for not only the dissidents but also the very government they opposed. By focusing on the dissidents, scholars have ignored the ways in which the Declaration’s contested meanings served not just as a means of protesting a state, but also as a way to buttress the state. The Declaration fi rst crossed the border from international diplomacy to internal politics not through underground dissident movements. In addition to dissidents, the Communist government, the press, and other organizations used the Declaration to reestablish their legitimacy internationally and domestically.
The Soviet leaders faced a unique problem as they dismantled Stalin’s policies, namely, the search for legitimacy. Stalin validated his rule by terror by mythologizing his ties to the October Revolution and Vladimir Lenin. Later he elaborated a fictitious history regarding his leadership in World War II.
Furthermore, Stalin justified the purges and mass arrests by positing himself as the protector of the Soviet Union against internal perceived enemies. Those hoping to succeed Stalin as head of the Soviet Union were “seeking to be Stalin’s successor but not his heir.” For example, the new leadership declared the first amnesty within three weeks of Stalin’s death. In other words, they sought to eliminate some of Stalin’s most repressive policies but maintain the Communist Party’s authority.
In their renunciation of Stalin, the new leaders, including but not exclusively Khrushchev, turned to many ideas to bolster their claim to legitimate rule, such as the concept of socialist legality. In contrast to Stalin’s reign, socialist legality redefined law away from terror and political whims toward increased adherence to procedural norms and rationalization. The leadership began reforming and stabilizing the legal system soon after Stalin’s death, but the idea of socialist legality and the rule of law flourished particularly after Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria, head of the KGB and the Minister of the Interior, was denounced. According to the denouncers, Beria had attempted to usurp leadership by continuing Stalinist terror and the application of law arbitrarily. In place of Beria’s cult of personality, the new leadership promised Socialist legality , which entailed “[t]he strict observance of law everywhere and in everything, mandatory for all state agencies, institutions, officials and citizens, provid[ing] a true guarantee for timely suppression of nefarious enemy attempts to harm our people and state.” With this renewed focus on legal theory, the government exonerated the communist system of “the trumping up faked criminal cases against innocent persons” or “carrying out terrorism against honest Soviet citizens.” Instead, it charged Stalin and Beriawith derailing the government through their illegitimate cults of personality. Khrushchev and his supporters promised to revive the Party and to “create an atmosphere of intolerance toward violations of the law … [and] create confidence that no one may violate the law with impunity.”
Attesting to Soviet Socialist Legality: Publicizing the Universal Declaration within the Government
International historians have begun examining the interactions between domestic and foreign politics. However, they have mostly focused on democracies, leaving in question whether such interaction could occur in an authoritarian dictatorship such as the Soviet Union. Examining the diplomacy on the Declaration shows how human rights discourse can flow across borders.
Despite Soviet efforts to build a wall between foreign diplomacy and domestic politics under Stalin, this wall eventually collapsed, in part because of the changing nature of human rights diplomacy. As mentioned earlier, the Foreign Ministry attempted to block UN efforts to publicize the Declaration domestically. However, as the UN began drafting more technical treaties, the Ministry was forced to incorporate other branches of Soviet government into making foreign policy because of their expertise.
In so doing, the Ministry not only disseminated the Declaration, along with the draft treaties, within the government, but it tasked other departments to consider their activities in terms of human rights. Initially, the Ministry almost unilaterally evaluated and answered United Nations issues regarding human rights. However, in 1956, the Ministry tasked the Institute of Law at the Soviet Academy of Science to collect information on human rights at home and in capitalist countries “in the event of attacks on us at the General Assembly in connection with alleged human rights violations.” One year later, V. Kuznetsov, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, wrote to the Minister of Higher Education and other offi cials regarding UN negotiations on the Declaration of Rights of Children, requesting their expertise on draft articles. He also wrote to the Minister of Public Health, the Minister of Social Security, the Chair of the Government Advisors on Work and Pay, and other government agencies. In conjunction with these requests, Kuznetsov circulated the relevant sections of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and drafts of the covenants and treaties.
Through the promulgation of these requests, Kuznetsov revealed the increasing attention and care with which the Foreign Ministry approached these detailed negotiations. While distributing the Declaration, the Foreign Ministry failed to mention the Soviet abstention. Consequently, the Ministry not only expanded other agencies’ knowledge of the Declaration, but also tasked the offi cials to consider their work in terms of human rights.
By the mid-1950s, the UN Commission on Human Rights had drafted the International Covenants on Human Rights and sought new ways to promote these ideas despite Cold War tensions. The United States along with Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan , and the Philippines initially proposed a series of in-depth studies on individual rights as a way to publicize domestic practices through international campaigns. The United States, in particular, believed these studies would be circulated to both policy makers and the concerned public around the world in order to enable comparisons between the internal methods of all UN countries and the extent of protecting (or violating) specific human rights. The Soviet and Polish delegates to the Commission repeatedly rejected the proposals, which they portrayed as competition against or, at the very least, a distraction from the draft covenants. Although their objections delayed the U.S. initiative, they were unable to block the research and publication of in-depth studies.
The themes of these studies immediately became part of the Cold War ideological debates. The first study, as advanced by the United States, focused on Article 9 of the Declaration – the right to be free from arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile - as it ostensibly “was the least controversial” and had not been investigated by other UN bodies. That said, the United States and other countries had collected extensive reports from émigrés and others that the USSR and other socialist states violated this right habitually. The Soviet delegation contended that there were more critical human rights violations, namely, the right to be free from discrimination and the right of self-determination, which they asserted threatened large swathes of the world’s population. Unstated, these rights were also the Achilles’ heel of the United States, which was facing the civil rights movement while its NATO allies were fighting colonial insurrections.
Not only did the Soviet delegation fail to block the studies, it lost in its battle over the rights to be examined. While the Foreign Ministry fought the study, another branch of the government - the Procuracy - interpreted the Commission on Human Rights investigations less hostilely. In 1958, the Foreign Ministry received the UN review of the Soviet laws regarding arrest, detention, and exile based primarily on Soviet entries within the UN Yearbook on Human Rights, the published legal codes, and newspapers. After delaying a few months, it forwarded the study to the Procuracy for a review, stipulating both its opposition and its fear that the study was a covert tactic for the United States to attack the USSRslanderously.
In the Soviet system, the Procuracy served as the state prosecutor, supervised preliminary criminal investigations, and was “the organ for the protection of socialist legality.” Despite the Foreign Ministry’s lack of urgency, the Procuracy responded in less than a month, even with the New Year’s holidays, hinting at its enthusiasm for the study. Instead of subversive attacks, the Procuracy commentator P. Kudriavtsev found the Commission’s review to be generally an accurate one, which “does not provoke and does not contain factual mistakes.” In contrast to Ministry’s antagonistic attitude, Kudriavtsev proposed not only consenting to the study, but expanding on it. Since the UN used only published sources, particularly the regularly delayed Yearbook, the Procuracy wanted the Soviet response to incorporate the more recent laws. He did not allude to the motives for the modifi cations in laws, namely, the new policy of socialist legality, nor did he elaborate on the legal situation that existed under Stalin. That said, Kudriavtsev viewed the study as an opportunity to internationally publicize socialist legality: “[T]hese answers to the legal questions will attest to the existence in the Soviet government a regime of legality [zakonnosti].” The Procuracy offi cial saw the UN study as a path to gain moral legitimacy not only at the Commission but in the subsequent publication and distribution of the new Soviet laws internationally as well.