(22) Human Rights: Past and Present

2005 - Noam Chomsky - The Idea of Universality in Linguistics and Human Rights


Les droits de l’homme and the Universality of Human Rights, 1945-1966

In January 1947 sixty-year-old René Cassin, Vice-President of the French Conseil d’État and offi cial French delegate to the newly created United Nations Human Rights Commission, arrived in New York from Paris. That commission was to define and implements a postwar international regime of rights, beginning with the drafting of a human rights document that might become internationally binding. Cassin’s mood was less than propitious.

The Atlantic had been rough and delayed him. Added to the bitter cold was the isolated locale of his international adventure; the UN had moved its provisional administrative headquarters to the relatively isolated village setting of Lake Success, in upstate New York. His general dissatisfaction was only exacerbated when he discovered that the commission’s chair, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the former president, had no Europeans on her team of drafters, an omission he regarded as ‘symbolic’. Instead, at her side there stood ‘two philosophers, M[onsieur] Chang, Chinese, vice-president, and M[onsieur] Malik, Lebanese, rapporteur’. From Cassin’s perspective there was worse in store.

French had been demoted to an auxiliary language at the meeting, and he felt his own contribution to the discussions was incapacitated by the simultaneous translation process, which matched the French concept les droits de l’homme (literally, ‘the rights of man’) with the English ‘human rights’.

The question of cultural relativism has been long at the heart of the historiography of the international programme of human rights introduced in the aftermath of the Second World War. Overall, historians have tended to characterize the universalism of this programme as a European ambition that stood in sharp contrast to an inevitable position of cultural relativism taken up by contemporary anti-colonialists.

Ironically, the story of Cassin’sattachment to les droits de l’homme and his distress at the marginalization of Europeans and the French language offer evidence against this reductive characterization. Cassin was also the drafter who ‘spent the post-adoption years interpreting the Declaration to the larger world, almost always stressing the theme of universality’.

In his role as a drafter of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he proposed appointing individuals rather than nation-state delegates to the Human Rights Commission. Although unsuccessful, his efforts helped sustain a vision of an international organization not only represented by individuals but also representing them. Cassin also supported, against the majority, the right of petition over and above the rights of state representation to the UN.

Unusually for a man in high national office, he defended the inclusion in the postwar French Constitution of a clause allowing the abrogation of French national sovereignty in the interests of established international principles. His imprint is also obvious in the Universal Declaration’s invocation of the equality of all individuals as members of ‘the human family’.

The reduction of the postwar history of human rights to the problem of cultural relativism versus universalism ignores the more complicated history of human rights as an idea. One need only think of the term ‘human rights’ itself, which, according to Kenneth Cmiel, was hardly used before the 1940s. 4 By contrast, Cassin’s preferred term, the French les droits de l’homme, like its English equivalent ‘the rights of man’, had well-known and well-worn roots in the late-eighteenth-century Enlightenment tradition.

Cassin’s usage of les droits de l’homme was meant to provide the distinctive stamp of an unchanging European and French political heritage for the universal claims of human rights. But he invoked that phrase in radically shifting political and cultural circumstances: the twentieth-century trajectory of French imperialism, the rise of international institutions (from the League of Nations to the United Nations), and feminist and anti-colonialist negotiations of les droits de l’homme.

Cassin’s own role could change in each of these settings. At times he adopted the stance of the beleaguered European, at others the French patriot defending republican values from the challenges of authoritarianism, chauvinism, and anti-colonialism. Cassin took international action not only as a delegate to the UN Human Rights Commission from 1947 to 1971 but also as President of the European Court of Human Rights from 1965 to 1968, and as a member of one of the world’smost vulnerable minorities brought to consciousness of his Jewishness by the Holocaust.

This essay draws together the strands of Cassin’s conception of human rights in order to illuminate a more complex account of human rights as a ‘fluid’  idea mobilized in historically specifi c contexts and amidst competing accounts of its culturally specific pasts. The shifting settings and circumstances of Cassin’s long twentieth-century engagement of human rights as les droits de l’homme are presented here chronologically, beginning with the period before the Second World War, followed by his postwar role in the drafting of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and concluding with the discussions surrounding the International Conventions on Human Rights adopted in 1966.

Across these decades, Cassin’s story has much to tell us about the importance of thinking about a twentieth-century history of human rights from the perspective of individuals navigating the cross-currents of social and political change. By emphasising the fluidity of human rights as an idea my aim is to show just how persistently the imperatives of imperial and national sovereignty, and the tensions between them, have shaped and constrained the career of human rights as an international ideal.

Empire and the League of Nations

Even though René Cassin was only one of a signifi cant team responsible for drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he alone received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1968 on the basis of ‘his contribution to the protection of human worth and the rights of man’. Cassin believed he was deserving of this accolade. His acceptance speech crafted a narrative of a lifetime devoted to the crusade for les droits de l’homme. He ranked his interwar international activism and his postwar role on the Human Rights Commission as contiguous with the longue durée history of human rights in the tradition of les droits de l’homme .

In the period after the First World War (he was a decorated veteran), the young lawyer Cassin energetically devoted himself to the economic and social rights of the thousands of French veterans and war widows whose lives had been ruined by the fi rst total war. Through the 1920s and 1930s he concentrated on the League of Nations as an instrument for improving the    circumstances of veterans worldwide.

He was also widely regarded as a supporter of efforts to eradicate political and legal discrimination against women. The alliance of women’s international organizations working with the League of Nation’s Social Questions unit to challenge the panoply of state-based laws that denied married women the right to keep their nationality turned to Cassin to draft a legal resolution to the situation of ‘stateless’ abandoned, widowed and displaced women. By then, Cassin was also the French national delegate to the League of Nations, as well as a member of the Ligue des droits de l’Homme (League of the Rights of Man), a national organization devoted to universal rights.

In 1936, at a conference in Dijon attended by Cassin, the Ligue adopted a ‘Declaration of The Rights of Man’, demanding that ‘[t]he international protection of the rights of man must be universally organized and guaranteed so that no State can refuse the exercise of these rights by any human being living in its territory’. The Ligue Declaration’s enunciation of the principles of universalism, internationalism, and equality resonated a decade later as Cassin exerted his influence over the UN’s own Declaration.

Of course, the drafters of the 1936 Ligue Declaration were themselves self-consciously echoing a prototype - the 1789 French Déclaration des droits de l’homme ET du citoyen. But, whereas that late-eighteenth-century document had described ‘droits naturels, inaliénables et sacrés’, the Ligue’s 1936 Declaration marked a more inclusive conception of rights, emphasizing the individual rights of the ‘human being’ ( être humain ) without distinction of sex, race, nation, religion or opinion. It posited social and economic rights, the right to a job, culture and property, but only insofar as the latter did not impede on ‘community interest’ (which, it was claimed, could be the case when cartels, trusts and fi nancial consortiums were given free reign).

Such rights included the right to life and, in this regard, the special rights of mothers and children, and of the aged and the ill. For all these cases, the Declaration made no reference to national specifi city; it was intended to have universal relevance.

Cassin was deeply committed to this interwar conception of the individual as a fundamentally social human being, and to the Ligue’s social-democratic objectives. It is also true, as the historian Jay Winter has pointed out, that Cassin’s vision of les droits de l’homme was as consistently oriented around the individual, not as a member of a social class or nation, ‘but as the common denominator of humanity’ and as the antithesis of collectively based rights whose potential was to undermine the universality of rights.

This emphasis on the individual was in part motivated by the events of the interwar period, specifi cally the Nazi state’s exploitation of the League of Nation’s minority legislation as the legitimation for its aggressive foreign policy on behalf of Germans outside Germany. Cassin had also grown frustrated at the inability of the League of Nations to protect individual Jews from the discrimination and abuses enacted by states in which they held national citizenship. In this context, Cassin’s preference was for the codification and enforcement of individual rights over the interwar trend toward minority rights and their nationalist and statist rationales.

Just as Cassin’s experience at the League of Nations, and with the Ligue des droits de l’Homme, helped defi ne his internationalism, the Nazi occupation of France, the establishment of the Vichy regime and his growing awareness of the terrible fate of Jews across Europe (including the disappearance of his own extended family) alerted him to the politically strategic significance of universally-conceived and internationally sanctioned individual rights. Ironically, this same pragmatism reinforced his view of the crucial international role of the French Republic as the source and defender of those rights.

During the war, while in self-imposed political exile in London, Cassin had volunteered his legal expertise in service to Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free France resistance and future French President. De Gaulle rewarded him with the role of Permanent Secretary to the Council of Defense of the Empire. In December 1941, Cassin was sent off on a difficult journey across the French empire, from the ‘Near East’ of Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt, to Indochina, Chad and the Cameroons, collecting information on the state of support for the French Republic in each of these outposts.

With this new responsibility came an acquaintance with the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a secular Jewish organization established in the mid-nineteenth century and devoted to the dissemination of the French language and the republican values of les droits de l’homme, particularly in the French colonies. His attention newly focused on the protection of the rights of Jews, as minorities. Within the French Republic and its empire, Cassin found affirmation of a tradition of les droits de l’homme that was as intrinsic to secular Judaism as it was to the values of the French republic.

Despite evidence that de Gaulle and his French Cabinet members were personally inclined to anti-Semitism, Cassin’s memoirs announce that these wartime travels had made him more profoundly French. They had given him an insight - not shared by most other Frenchmen - into the many departments, possessions, protectorates and mandates of the French empire, as well as into the universal capacity of les droits de l’homme . Cassin’s commitment to imperial France as the preferred setting for the implementation of universal individual rights in existing French territories is well captured in the advice he offered de Gaulle on the form of a future international organization during the early discussions among the Allies (a grouping known at the time as the ‘ United Nations’) on a postwar order.

Cassin took the opportunity to reject the League of Nations model, and what he saw as its overwrought legal investment in national sovereignty. He contrasted its ineffi ciencies with the international agency exercised by nineteenth-century empires such as Britain and France in the pre-League era. Those empires had been able to take unilateral action to eradicate slavery and, less successfully, to protect Armenians (against Turks), Lebanese Christians (against the Druze) and Jews (against the Tsar’s pogroms). Cassin proposed that the new international organization should be legally enabled to intervene in international crises when individual les droits de l’homme was at risk, regardless of national sovereignty.

He also defended the integrity of the French empire as crucial for the universal destiny of les droits de l’homme - to the extent of alerting de Gaulle of the creeping infl uence of the concept of national self-determination in colonies such as Indochina. From Cassin’s perspective, there was no inevitable correspondence between les droits de l’homme and national self-determination. In the micro-cosmopolitan spaces of the French empire, Jews such as himself and Muslims, white and black, could seek politico-cultural convergence as French citizens and patriots. The anticolonial alternative augured ethnic and religious nation-states (in the context of Algeria and Morocco, the assumption was they would be predominantly Muslim) that would reconstitute their Jewish and other non-Muslim citizens as vulnerable minorities.



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