(23) Human Rights: Past and Present

 Global Women's Rights


Cosmopolitanism, Human Rights and the UN

In the period extending roughly from 1945 to 1950, another way of conceptualizing the implementation of universal human rights began to be discussed in the context of the creation of the United Nations, namely, the prospect of a cosmopolitan ‘world citizenship’ that was distilled from cultural differences and potentially transcended them. Although world citizenship was not an ideal that Cassin ascribed to with any obvious enthusiasm, its ambitions shaped the larger discussion amidst the agencies and committees of the UN and the presentation of human rights as simultaneously individualist and universal.

In 1950, Jaime Torres Bodet, the Mexican politician and educationalist and second Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO ), described ‘world citizenship’ as ‘engendered by the sense of justice, by that principle in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which assigns to the individual universal rights of which none can be legally or morally deprived’. To be sure, Bodet’s assertion was made against the rising tide of Cold War polarization and anti-colonialist pressures.

The period after 1950 signalled the renunciation by the UN and UNESCO of world citizenship and a return to an older particularist agenda of national ‘self-determination’, claimed anew in the context of emancipatory aspirations for decolonization. Even though the process was gradual, and the universal underpinnings of the new international human rights agenda continued to be defended by the representatives of anti-colonialism well into the period of the Bandung Conference of 1955, 19 by the time the two Covenants on Human Rights – one on Social and Economic Rights, and one on Political and Civil Rights – were adopted by the UN in 1966, world citizenship had been irreparably severed from cosmopolitanism, just as the world citizen had ceded to the rights of ‘peoples’. It was in this shifting ideological setting that Cassin, through his ongoing role on the Human Rights Commission, affirmed the importance of a conception of human rights that existed over and above that of the patrie , at the same time as he insisted on the historical role of France in inventing, interpreting and implementing les droits de l’homme.

As we have seen, when Cassin arrived in New York for the fi rst sessions of the Human Rights Commission in 1947, he was concerned to ensure a prominent role for France and Europe in the formulation of the fundamental principles that could comprise a universal human rights declaration. By this time the terms human rights and les droits de l’homme were interchangeably drawn upon in the (mostly) simultaneous French and English discussions.

Cassin found too that his non-European colleagues on the Human Rights Commission were keen to identify their own cultures and states in the exposition of that universalism, and in the narrative of the origins of human rights as an idea. Delegates from the newly independent (formerly American colony) Philippines, for example, made good weather of the specifi c language of world citizenship, describing their nation as the most cosmopolitan state in the world. Indeed, Cassin found his own view of universal rights positioned between a conservative portrait of human nature and humanity put by European delegates in defence of empires, and a relatively radical cosmopolitan vision of the history and signifi cance of human rights proposed by these ‘non-European’ commissioners.

The Philippines’ representative on the Human Rights Commission, Carlos Romulo, appealed for ‘a rational bill of rights that will take into account all the different cultural patterns there are in theworld, especially in respect to popular customs and legal systems’. Romulo gave words also to a common postwar interpretation of how universal human rights might work – it would distil from the variety of different positions an essential body of law relevant to all humans, who belonged to one human family. He was, of course, offering an implicit critique of colonialism along the way, since the hierarchical classifi cation of collective human differences had acted as the justifi cation of European colonialism. Rather than promote human rights in the context of national self-determination, Romulo invoked the potential for indulging ‘the vision of World Government which the implementation of the proposed international bill of rights will doubtless require in some degree, and of which, as a matter of fact, it will be the cornerstone’.

In the same session of the Commission on Human Rights, Peng-Chun Chang, the Kuomintang delegate, presented his own history of the cosmopolitan nature of the eighteenth-century world. Chang (who, like Romulo, had passed through North American institutions as well as universities in his own country) argued that a nineteenth-century European ‘myopia’ had recast the eighteenth century as a period when civilization stood for Europe: ‘That was not true in the eighteenth century.

All cultured men in the eighteenth century, especially concerning this idea of the conception of man, knew their Chinese thoughts very clearly’. Chang insisted that his point was not a nationalist one on behalf of China, rather that there was an eighteenth-century tradition of cosmopolitanism, which had been lost to the nineteenth century and which the current international experiment in human rights could restore.

Cassin did not let Chang’s foray into the history of the eighteenth-century pass without comment. He agreed with the view that before the nineteenth century there was a universalistic trend of thought; but he also believed that it had been reasserted in the twentieth century through the efforts of Europe. The European found himself curiously on the defensive among the non- Europeans of the commission who claimed for themselves a share of the historical ownership of human rights as an idea.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as the UN grew more ‘cosmopolitan’, with its rapidly expanding member states and African and Asian representation, the French jurist grew more insistent on the very point of a Western , European, liberal tradition of human rights. By then, the real rift was not between Paris and Peking intellectuals, but the West and East of the Cold War, and a new North–South axis – polarities that were in turn defi ned by an ideological distinction between individual and collective rights.

There is no little irony in the fact that in the early UN debates on human rights the representatives of non-European states at times found themselves defending a more cosmopolitan version of the universal qualities of human rights than their European peers. What most of them paid less attention to was the gender stereotypes that had in the past compromised the universalism of the rights of man rhetoric, and threatened to do the same even when contemplated as the rights of humans.

Human Rights and Les droits des femmes

At San Francisco in 1945, and then at the London, Paris and New York gatherings that shaped the UN’s social and political programme, feminists from the old and new worlds expressed their concern that ‘human rights’ as much as les droits de l’homme, or ‘the rights of man ’, implied men, and women by exception only. Feminists were also wary of the inclination to emphasize the espousal of universality as the antithesis of chauvinist cultural or racial hierarchies as the central motivation for this postwar human rights agenda. Nora Stanton Barney, writing in the feminist periodical Equal Rights in 1946, echoed the sentiments of numerous feminist lobbyists of the UN organization when she claimed:

We all know only too well, and have heard only too often great speeches on human rights by people who have in mind only the rights of men, and never think of the human rights of women. Even women who have taken to heart mainly discriminations on account of race and color, completely forget discriminations on account of sex. The Commission on Human Rights will probably emphasize these racial discriminations rather than those of women. Although the UN’s Charter stipulated the equality of men and women, some feminists were so concerned about a bias inherent in the concept of human rights that they supported the establishment of a separate human rights commission for women. Others who had grown disillusioned with the segregation of women’s issues in the League of Nations were as adamant that the League precedent should not be followed in the new organization.

Cassin kept a relatively low profi le in these discussions, but we know that he was generally in accord with Eleanor Roosevelt, the chair of the Human Rights Commission. Roosevelt opposed the creation of a second women’s body on the basis that human signified women as well as men. She did not agree that women required ‘identical treatment with men in all cases’, but she believed that the rights of men and women could be represented in the one human rights commission. 28 Nevertheless, in 1946 the UN’s Third Committee created the Sub-Commission on the Status of Women as part of the Human Rights Commission. The Sub-Commission was quickly promoted to the status of an independent body, the Commission on the Status of Women, with a focus on political rights and civil equality. The rights it promoted were concretely juridical and in many ways borrowed from the League of Nations: equality in marriage, monogamy, nationality, property and guardianship of children, social and economic equality, the prevention of traffi c in women and equal opportunity in the domain of education.

As Johannes Morsink has shown in his study of the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, those critics who anticipated the neglect of women’s rights in the articulation of human rights had a point. Even as the new communist bloc pushed for a conception of nondiscrimination as relevant to sex as well as race, the Economic and Social Committee delimited the scope of the Commission on the Status of Women to a ‘very narrow and harmless set of activities around women’s concerns’. In terms of the crafting of the declaration, the human rights propositions decided upon reflected historically specific gender norms, particularly in regard to the place of men and women in families – norms which, to be sure, were accepted by the feminist organizations, as well as by Cassin.

A week before the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration, Andrée Lehmann, the president of the Ligue Française pour le Droit des Femmes – an organization that originated in the mid- nineteenth century well before the Ligue des droits de l’Homme – wrote to Cassin, reminding him of a letter she had sent a month earlier about Article 16 of the Declaration. Lehmann was concerned that the use of ‘they’ to indicate the sharing of equal rights in the matter of marriage was too ambiguous. She urged the more specifi c wording ‘men and women’, including the addition of a clause that gave men and women ‘the same rights during the marriage and in respect of its dissolution’. In writing to Cassin, Lehmann was reinforcing the suggestions offered to the Human Rights Commission by the Status of Women Commission. The final version of Article 16 reflects in part these suggestions, since it unambiguously employs ‘men and women’. But, rather than enshrine what was ostensibly a right to divorce, its third clause turned completely in the other direction, affirming that ‘[t]he family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State’. This claim was certainly the consequence of the influence of Christian delegates, only some of them European. Yet it also accorded with Cassin’s choice of the ‘human family’ metaphor in the preamble to the Declaration, as well as his theoretical understanding of the family as a primary social setting for the individual, and a corollary conception of the protection of motherhood as a special condition of women’s equal rights. It also echoed the interwar welfarist emphases of the Ligue des droits de l’Homme, as well as the postwar agenda of the Commission on the Status of Women.

By contrast, feminists such as Cassin’s Indian colleague Hansa Mehta (the one other woman on the Human Rights Commission in this period) were not successful in their demands that the interests of children and mothers be separated in order to emphasize women’s intrinsic rights as individuals or humans. Instead, in Article 25 of the Declaration the needs of mothers and children were essentially yoked together. We can interpret the problem of women’s status vis-à-vis human rights as another related dimension of the larger controversy surrounding universalism and the question of difference in the postwar debates about the nature of rights. At a practical level, Lehmann’s letter refl ects the extent to which a variety of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including Jewish and feminist organizations, were incorporated into the drafting of the Declaration often thanks to Cassin who sat on endless NGO boards and committees (including the Alliance Israélite Universelle, the World Jewish Congress, and the central committee of the Ligue des droits de l’Homme).

It also highlights the difficult position of the Commission on the Status of Women, a body which emerged out of the fear expressed by some feminists that women would be forgotten or submerged in the assumption of universality and then, once it was created, was effectively marginalized by the Human Rights Commission. Even as conventions about gender difference made their way into the Declaration in the form of the special status of women – whether as mothers, wives, or workers, or in the family – the question of women’s status intruded in the dominant discussions of the relevance of race and cultural difference usually in ways that some feminists had feared. For Belgium’s delegate to the Human Rights Commission, the fact of sex difference was the basis for accepting the fact ofrace difference as a fundamental qualifi cation of any universal application of human rights.

Chang, for his part, had no problem with mui jai – the selling of Chinese girls to wealthy families as domestic laborers – even as British delegates who rejected the universal applicability of human rights in their own colonial territories were depicting this practice as a form of slavery. As we will see, Cassin’s postwar identification of les droits de l’homme with a specifi cally French and Judaeo-Christian tradition similarly made the status of women a marker of a society’s capacity to value and enact human rights and, concurrently, a basis for denying the universal application of human rights in culturally differentiated communities.






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