Nobel Lecture*, December 11, 1968
The Charter of Human Rights
In the course of the December tenth session, I had the privilege of paying tribute to the Norwegian nation in the person of its Ring, to Alfred Nobel, founder of the Peace Prize, who died on December 10, 1896, and to all the laureates honored since 1901 for their services to humanity. But I am aware of not having properly expressed my gratitude to the members of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee and in particular to its chairman, Mrs. Aase Lionaes, who represented Norway in 1948 at the General Assembly of the United Nations whose [Third] Committee deliberated on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
So before I begin, I should like to make amends for what must seem an unwarrantable omission. The independence and the rigorous impartiality which the Committee has consistently shown have steadily increased the worldwide prestige of the Nobel Peace Prize, and increased also for its recipient – institution or individual – the distinction of being selected. Furthermore, when public opinion and men representing the highest moral values concur in the Nobel Committee’s choice, the goal sought by the founder of the prize is more closely approached.
If it is the responsibility of the Nobel Committee to weigh carefully and to communicate to the public the reasons for its choice, the laureate has the obligation on his own part to set forth publicly the motives which have inspired his work for peace in general or on behalf of one or the other of its elements. It is only after having discharged that obligation of conscience that he has the right to cast a backward glance at the progress made to date, in the hope of convincing his listeners – and all others – of the necessity, as well as the possibility, of advancing toward the creation of a more humane world.
I shall confess at the outset that it was only shortly after the beginning of this century that I entered active life – with a somewhat precocious capacity for involvement. To be sure, I was at an early age engrossed in education, interested in international affairs and in reading about social issues. And as a child I was filled with passionate admiration for acts of civic courage I had seen performed by an elderly military doctor, who was a friend of my family. I was likewise deeply moved a little later by the injurious injustice done not only to Captain Dreyfus1 but also to persons less in the public eye. Nevertheless during the whole period of my preparation for a professorship through advanced studies in law and letters, because of a sort of reticence or even distrust of my impulses, I avoided dealing with subjects of an avowedly political nature, even though the technical law of contracts and obligations is of course dominated by moral principles, notably that of good faith. Similarly, the problem of the rights of the state in the disposition of inheritances left by individuals presents social aspects of the first importance.
It was really the War of 1914-1918 which upset my temporarily comfortable moral equilibrium, or – to be less severe on myself – my carefully disciplined self-limitation. That war put its indelible and unmistakable stump on me, as it did on many of my contemporaries. But it wasn’t so much the spectacular horror of the battlefields or the suffering in the hospitals that marked us, as it was the agonized perception of the lasting and wasteful consequences of the war: the disabled soldiers, the families deprived of their last supporting member – dead for the welfare of all. I was not able to accept the idea that national solidarity with those victims should limit itself to a kind of charitable alms. That is why I soon joined those who fought – and victoriously – for recognition of the right to compensation for personal damages incurred in the service of the national community. Human dignity and the general welfare of our country, then depleted in-manpower, demanded that, in addition to being given the traditional pensions, our numerous disabled veterans be reintegrated into society by such measures as artificial limb banks, professional retraining programs, and loans for establishing small businesses, and that our 800.000 orphaned minors be brought up and educated under the special protection of the nation.
It was as a result of that first undertaking that my most eminent colleagues and I decided it was essential to go back to first principles and to foster respect for the supreme commitment of those who had sacrificed themselves that this war might be “the last”. As soon as the compensatory legislation was assured passage, we began to lay the groundwork for the future.
Our first gesture was to support the creation of the International Labor Organization2 by bringing together, as early as 1921, representatives of the disabled veterans organizations from the two sides so recently enemies. Under the auspices of Albert Thomas3 we began to coordinate our social legislation, both that already in effect and that in the planning stage, and also to coordinate our needs for and our aspirations toward peace.
We were thus led to organize ourselves, as men who had fought the war together, in order to support those statesmen who had truly understood the lessons of that World War, thus attempting to prevent its recurrence. The extent of our effort was vividly indicated by the massive enrollment of our French veterans groups into the French Association for the League of Nations in 1922 and by the founding during 1925-1926 of a Conférence internationale des associations des mutilés et d’anciens combattants (CIAMAC) [International Confederation of Disabled Veterans], whose deeply sincere leaders risked their influence, their freedom, and often their lives when the hate-mongers and the champions of violence raised their heads once again and seized power in Germany and elsewhere. Personally, I have never forgotten the speech made at Munich in that black year of 1934 – on July 6, 1934, to be exact – by Rudolph Hess4, the friend of Hitler, in which he announced that the Nazi regime, already the abettor of widely publicized assassinations, was preparing to break down the morale of veterans in free countries; he was only too correct, alas! It was in vain that some of us attempted to ward off this preparatory maneuver toward future wars of aggression.
The peacemaking efforts of the CIAMAC at that time were brought to the attention of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. But the invasion of Poland had already begun to set Europe aflame. As a privileged survivor of the First World War, I hope I may be allowed to interject here a deeply felt tribute to those who were not fortunate enough to succeed, but who shared the signal honor of trying to the last to salvage peace.
Meanwhile, crucial problems began to assail the League of Nations itself.
It had finally become necessary to exclude Japan. But Hitler’s Germany was quite a different matter. Concerned over a complaint about violations of agreements on minorities, the Geneva Assembly of 1933 settled on a very moderate text which invited all states, “whether or not they were bound by special covenants”, to respect the fundamental rights of all those over whom they had jurisdiction. Hitler was unable to tolerate such an affirmation. He made it an excuse for a clamorous break with the League of Nations and thus escaped any check on his then clandestine armament program, which he was subsequently to develop on a massive scale.
I bring this event up not because it was the sole cause of the Second World War but because it illuminated from that moment on the true nature of all the heinous acts which precipitated a catastrophe in which seventy-two million people perished. For those peoples forced to fight in order to halt that immense machine geared for the destruction of human liberty and dignity, the Second World War constituted a genuine “crusade for human rights”. I also mention it, alas, because today, barely a quarter of a century after that victorious crusade, we still hear too many national leaders expressing themselves on the subject of the absolute and exclusive sovereignty of the state over the human beings under its jurisdiction, enunciating principles which threaten again to lead the world into a state of anarchy and to plunge it into wars, supposedly local and limited in scope, but in reality damaging to all of humanity.
When France resolved, along with England, to lend assistance in the legitimate defense of Poland, the realization burst on us that a conflict of awesome proportions was inevitable. As early as the winter of 1940, but simply as a professor, I denounced “the Leviathan State against man and the human community”5, and I ranked respect for human rights as one of the essential goals of the sacrifices to which we were all committed. The following year, in September of 1941, having become, after the temporary disaster in my country, the representative of Fighting France at the Allied Conference in London, I swelled the voices of the occupied countries as we joined those of Churchill and Roosevelt in proclaiming the need to establish all future peace on a basis of human rights6. How is it that, once victory took form and the horrible spectacle of the extermination camps was revealed, we could have shamelessly broken the promises given to the peoples in those years of ordeal?
I have felt the need to describe – perhaps too lengthily – the stages through which my first international activities passed, between 1920 and the beginning of the Second World War, before going on to consider the importance for international peace of respecting the rights of all men, and before devoting myself more completely to this vast problem during the rest of my remarks. Since the Nobel Committee, through its chairman’s speech, has fully reviewed the efforts I have been able to make in this domain during the last twenty-five years, I shall try to avoid chronicling them again.
On the other hand, and principally because I consider myself doubly privileged, not only to work in the area of human rights, but also to work within it on three separate planes – national, international, and regional – I would like to draw some conclusions and lessons from the experience I have acquired.
Until 1940, the collective effort of the community of man in behalf of human rights had been devoted to the struggle against the scourge of slavery and slave-trading, with pacts of an humanitarian order ranging from the 1864 Charter of the International Red Cross7 to the Hague Conventions on the laws of war8. To this nucleus might be added certain covenants concerning contagious diseases or those intended to curb counterfeiting, the traffic in arms, white slavery, and, later, terrorism. Besides these matters, interventions “on behalf of humanity” were brought into play occasionally, but they either seemed to come too late – the Armenian massacres9 – or else they turned into colonialist exploitations.
The Covenant of the League of Nations had envisaged sponsoring only the protection of certain categories of men: national minorities and populations of territories controlled by other countries. The International Labor Organization was the only agency with a broad mandate, limited moreover to the protection of the rights of workers as such.
Abruptly, a world which had witnessed the serious, systematic, and innumerable violations that could be committed at the orders of a veritable gang found itself facing a problem of unsuspected amplitude: to protect the whole man and to protect the rights of all men. In this light we must not be surprised at the hesitation felt by the representatives of all nations convened at San Francisco in 1945 to adopt the Charter of the United Nations. To be sure, they included, as promised, the respect for and the promotion of human rights among the essential ends of the new organization, along with international peace. They conferred prerogatives in this domain on certain principal organs. But they were extremely cautious, if not timid. They did not dare to enact precise statements of purpose like those stipulated in the Statute of the International Labor Organization. They adopted phraseology that was rather weak or even equivocal – “to encourage human rights”, for example. Article 2:7, on matters dealing essentially with the jurisdiction of the states, is in contradiction to Articles 13, 65, 56, and 62 of the Charter. Finally, they did indeed create under Article 68 a special body to assure the progress of human rights, namely, the Commission on Human Rights; but they failed to define its powers, with the result that from 1946 on, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations accorded it a status identical to that of all the other commissions that are auxiliary organs of the United Nations.
As a consequence of these hesitations and of the vague character of such innovations, the Commission on Human Rights itself had doubts from the beginning about its role and its functions in general. The single outstanding exception was the broad yet precise mandate communicated by the General Assembly in 1946 to prepare as soon as possible the Charter of Human Rights which the San Francisco Conference had not had the time or the courage to draw up.
The Commission, originally composed of eighteen members of different nationalities and diverse occupations, was guided by an accurate instinct in its decision to work out before anything else an international Declaration having the character of a manifesto of organized mankind. In less than eighteen months, it prepared a first draft which it submitted to the General Assembly and which, at the end of one hundred sessions of elevated, often impassioned discussion, was adopted in the form of thirty articles on December 10, 1948.
By its very existence this Declaration, which was thereafter called “Universal” and which does not have a juridically obligatory character, constituted a historical event of the first magnitude. It is the first document of an ethical sort that organized humanity has ever adopted, and precisely at a time when man’s power over nature became vastly increased because of scientific discoveries and when it was essential to decide to what constructive ends these powers should be put. Its moral and political repercussions have been considerable. Of the eight states10 abstaining, as against forty-eight voting, at the time of the ballot, six invoke the Declaration as if they had voted. All the states subsequently admitted to the United Nations have actively supported it, if not inserted parts of it in their constitutions.
The Declaration loses none of its authority under close analysis. It proclaims as principles the whole body of rights and options without whose exercise man cannot fully realize his physical, moral, and intellectual individuality. After sometimes heated debates in the Commission, over which Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt presided from beginning to end, the Universal Declaration went even beyond the scope of the classic national declarations of England, North America, and France concerning corporal, judicial, religious, and political liberties. As corollaries to the right of every individual to life and to full participation in society, the Declaration incorporated in the list of human rights the right to work and a certain number of economic, social, and cultural rights. In short, thanks to formulas like that of Article 22 covering the body of these latter rights, it established a careful balance between them and the old liberties, a balance difficult to establish and to maintain in practice when dependent on individual regimes, but a balance of principles set up as an ideal for all countries.
The other salient characteristic of the Declaration is its universality: it applies to all human beings without any discrimination whatever; it also applies to all territories, whatever their economic or political regime. It expatiates on the position of the individual in the various social groups of which he is a part, especially on his duties to the community and the other members of society, but in terms postulating a democratic society and excluding the omnipotence of a totalitarian state.
Although the composition and adoption of the Declaration were relatively easy and happily successful, it is common knowledge that the other two leaves of the triptych making up the Charter of Human Rights were much more difficult and time-consuming to work out. It was six years before the Commission on Human Rights could submit to the Assembly the drafts of the twin Covenants it had prepared: one concerning civil and political rights; the other concerning economic, social, and cultural rights. There were, as a matter of fact, two difficulties to surmount.
The first to be favorably dealt with was the problem of deciding whether the right of peoples to self-determination, which had previously been considered a principle of a political and essentially collective nature, should be inserted in the Covenants intended to implement the rights proclaimed in the Universal Declaration, which was concerned only with the rights exercised, separately or communally, by the individual. The solution arrived at can be explained historically by the movement toward decolonization and, more exactly, toward the political emancipation of territorial entities, which was a logical outcome of the victorious libertarian principles fostered in the course of the Second World War.
Although seemingly of a simple methodological character, the second difficulty was resolved only after long deliberations at the end of which the General Assembly of the United Nations, after having gone on record in 1950 as favoring the drafting of a single Covenant embodying all the rights proclaimed by the Declaration, changed its mind in 1951 and thereafter directed the Commission to prepare two separate Covenants, each to include substantive provisions on the obligations of the state and the respective measures of application. In the course of time it has been confirmed that this system best fits the peculiarities of each of the two categories of rights.
The debates before the General Assembly of the United-Nations went on for eighteen years11. Their slowness can be explained in part by the fact that each year the newly independent nations which entered the Third Committee of the General Assembly12 needed to form an opinion of the usefulness of the Covenants in general and of the eventual effect of these Covenants on their own institutions. But that explanation is only partially valid. The most powerful cause of this delay was the desire of certain powers to put off as long as possible discussion of the – paradoxically quite modest – enforcement measures voted by the Commission on Human Rights, which were considered encroachments on the sovereignty of the states. The final vote attained unanimity in 1966 only because it became inconceivable on the very eve of the International Human Rights Year to prolong the filibuster any further. Moreover, a heavy price has been paid. The implementation measures of both Covenants, but especially those of the Covenant concerning civil and political rights, were considerably weakened to the point where they assumed an optional character. The only compensation, gained through the influence of nongovernmental organizations, consisted in slightly broadening for private individuals the possibility of access and appeal to the agencies enforcing the Covenant concerned with civil and political rights.
Thus, since the unanimous vote of the General Assembly, the Charter of Human Rights has become a unified whole. As Secretary-General U Thant stated, “It is completed.”
Are we justified today, twenty years after the Universal Declaration, in declaring ourselves satisfied?
When one considers the confusion, not to say anarchy, from which the nations of the world have just emerged, as well as the difficulties that have had to be surmounted one after the other, the adoption, however belated, of the Charter of Human Rights is a happy event which prepares the way for a veritable juridical revolution. Henceforth, there should be no doubt about the fundamental question, that of knowing whether the various sovereign states have retained or lost their traditionally exclusive sphere of authority over the manner of dealing with those under their jurisdiction. That jurisdiction of the states will always be a fundamental principle. It will remain basic. But it will no longer be exclusive. It will in some situations, as in the case of a complaint formulated under certain conditions and presented before certain international agencies, be possible to transfer it to these agencies, that is to say to the whole of juridically organized mankind. This will mean two things: first, the permanent accession of every human being to the rank of member of human society – in legal parlance one would say to the rank of subject of international law; second, it will mean that the states consent to exercise their sovereignty under the authority of international law, as Pope John XXIII13 pointed out in the Encyclical Pacem in terris, which is his testament.
But is this result within reach? Here we must appeal to the sense of responsibility of leaders of peoples and at the same time to the aspirations of the common man who helps to shape public opinion.
The delays which hampered the adoption of the draft Covenants and the completion of the Charter of Human Rights were on the whole very prejudicial to the progress of human rights guarantees. They allowed the administrations of all countries to revert to old ways of thinking – without formulating them in a necessarily threatening manner – very like the ones Hitler had expressed at Geneva in 1933 through Goebbels14.
As a matter of fact, these delays have not been fatal for humanity, and their inauspicious effects have been mitigated to a certain extent. For one thing, when urgent questions were brought up and taken to heart by energetic groups, conventions of universal scope on limited areas of concern were speedily proposed or even ratified, and are now in force or soon will be. I cite as an example slavery, against which a convention was adopted in 1956 complementing the agreement of 1926. I might also mention several covenants aimed at improving the condition of women (with respect to nationality, political rights, freedom of consent to marriage, wages, etc.) and the struggle against discrimination in employment and job categories (ILO, 1958), and in education (UNESCO, 1960 and 1962), and, more recently, against racial discrimination, voted on in December, 1965, at the UN, and now about to become operative.
As a valuable compensatory advantage of the delays, I call attention to the opportunity thus given to states recently come to or returned to independence, to discuss these Covenants and to make their contribution to them. No one can forget the very active initiative taken by certain delegates of these young nations in smoothing out difficulties and carrying the final vote.
The third fact which I feel I should emphasize is that on November 4, 1950, the member states of the Council of Europe15 adopted a so-called safeguard of human rights. This European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which, along with its Additional Protocol16 and the European Social Charter17, aims at the effective application of the Universal Declaration, has been in force since 1953. It works. It has already had a twofold effect. On the one hand, its provisions have been made binding within the member nations, thus influencing their national law. On the other hand, its execution is under the supervision of European institutions created for that purpose: the European Commission of Human Rights, the Committee of Ministers, and the European Court of Human Rights. These agencies all function smoothly with regard to states and individuals. The number of cases submitted to them is already considerable. For the first time, one is confronted with the orders of a Court – few as they may be – which have conclusive authority and which the nations who are parties to the Convention find it important to observe punctually,. Despite what confirmed pessimists say about the matter, there is at least one continent where an impressive array of states has committed itself to heeding the lessons of the Second World War. Unfortunately it must be conceded that part of Europe remains outside the zone of influence of the Convention. Even among the members of the Council there is a disparity in the strength of their compliance. Eleven states have accepted the possibility of complaints being directed against them by individuals or by groups. But some have accepted the Convention only insofar as it binds them with respect to other states. Two others, including my own country, have not yet ratified. And finally, one member state is at the present moment the subject of petitions from other member states for not respecting the Convention.
At the point now reached, strengthened by the experience acquired through continued analysis of the situation on three planes – national, international, and regional – we are in a position to draw some conclusions.
First of all, it is essential that a system of guarantees, and especially of due process before independent judiciaries, be organized within each state for the benefit of all individuals, without discrimination. The surest means by which a state may avoid outside intervention is to recognize and itself insure respect for fundamental rights and liberties in the territories under its jurisdiction.
Second, there must be no question of permitting any diminution of the universality of the Declaration. There are fundamental liberties and rights common to all human beings, without possible discrimination. It is the most oppressed, the weakest of these individuals who would be threatened by any attempts to fragmentize the effective scope of the Declaration.
Third, the universality of the Declaration’s principles creates no reasonable obstacles to the establishment of regional systems for applying those principles. Europe has really offered a good example after the turning point of 1948, and I, a determined universalist, was able to conclude that certain means of implementation are more readily accepted if they are organized among neighboring nations of similar culture. Communities of law and customs are not invented arbitrarily. It is to be hoped that the New World will also form regional associations. In Asia, Africa, and the socialist world these concepts are being discussed. But there are as yet no results.
In the fourth place, it is extremely desirable that the Charter of Human Rights go into effect as soon as possible. To accomplish that, the ratification of thirty-five states of the world is necessary for each Covenant. At the present time, to my knowledge, not a single government has ratified, even with reservations. So let us not allow it to be said that the United Nations Organization is at fault and does nothing; the jurists have, for the moment, done their part. It is up to public opinion everywhere to persuade the various governments to do theirs.
At this point I should like to address a special appeal to the European peoples. Despite the benefits received from most of the guarantees of the regional 1950 Convention, the differences which separate this text from that of the Universal Covenant on civil and political rights are not, in the considered judgment of European governmental experts, so significant that they present serious obstacles to a ratification of this Covenant by the European states.
It would be a magnificent example to give to all peoples if they acted in concert for such a ratification. It seems to me that they would insure a sorely needed future for human rights on the other continents. This Covenant’s becoming operative constitutes, in my opinion, the most important advance for which we can hope in the immediate future.
I have until now confined my conclusions to matters concerning the Universal Declaration and the Covenants in general, or to limited consequential objectives.
Nongovernmental civic organizations should not cease studying projects for broader juridical reform – such as the creation of a High Commissioner of Human Rights, a freer access for individuals to the channels of international recourse, the establishment of an International Court of Criminal Law, and others – but I think it is essential that they concentrate their main effort for as long a time as necessary to bring about tangible results from this work already done by the United Nations. Then, when the mechanisms provided by the Covenants have been tested in practice, it will be time to coordinate and reinforce them. Not to implement the measures already worked out, even if they are insufficient, would be playing into the hands of those who wish to block any progress. I do not believe there will be any “nights of August fourth” in this tense and bitter world of uneasy transition. We must seize every opportunity to strengthen its unity.
Meanwhile, in addition to this crucial problem of the implementation of the agreements, several others should be faced without delay.
One of them is restating the role and the methods of the Commission on Human Rights. After the accomplishment of its mandate to draft the Declaration and the Covenants, this agency has very properly continued to work on the preparation of a whole series of conventions against discrimination of various kinds. But for the last two years it has been groping its way and has been tending to become an agency for providing information or advice on specific cases, a function which is not outside its theoretical role but which it is not equipped to handle efficiently. It is necessary, too, that the Commission stress its essentially significant role of examiner of the periodic reports which the states must file on the manner in which they respect human rights. It is the responsibility of the chairman of the Commission to see that their obligations are met.
Other even more urgent measures must, it seems to me, be taken to protect the agents and the activities of the International Red Cross. Since the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the role of the Red Cross has been expanded to include all cases of armed conflict, even those not designated as foreign wars. Now several times in the last few years and most recently in Biafra, it has been authenticated that agents of the Red Cross sent on humanitarian missions were molested, threatened, or even killed, and that it has sometimes been necessary to withdraw them to insure their safety.
I have not been able to read or to hear such accounts without shame. In my opinion there is no task of safeguarding human rights more urgent than that of foreseeing such outrages and preventing them. Humanity owes it to itself to watch over, guard, and protect those who represent it and who devote their lives to beneficent activities. I have been able today to approach only a single, if vast, aspect of the conditions of international peace. It would be shortsighted of anyone to forget the others, such as education, disarmament, technical and financial cooperation.
Ultimately, of course, the organizing of peace must be based on considerations of reason and concern. It presupposes tremendous efforts to modify through education some longstanding mental attitudes – to work toward limitation of armaments, to manifest solidarity with the hungry, to cooperate in the strengthening of family or societal units. But reason alone is not enough. Emotional factors and especially the sense of justice must not be left to those who pervert them to the service of hate and destruction.
It is with great feeling that I take my leave of this country where peace and law are so highly esteemed. So perhaps you will permit a French citizen committed to the service of peace and law to recall, as indicative of faith in mankind, these two lines from a French poet who received one of the first prizes, the Nobel Prize in Literature18:
My country imbues me with a love that overflows its borders,
And the more French I am, the more I feel a part of mankind19.
During the years of anguish when the freedom of whole peoples was in jeopardy, they were asked to persevere to the last. The time has come to proclaim that, for the establishment of peace and human dignity, each of us must work and fight to the last.
1. The conviction and imprisonment of Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) for treason in 1894 and the ensuing debate on his innocence or guilt eventually constituted a political issue in the years that followed, dividing all France; after a pardon in 1899, Dreyfus won complete legal clearance in 1906.
7. The first Geneva Convention (1864) concerned treatment of wounded and sick military personnel during war, guaranteed neutrality for medical personnel, and provided for the official adoption of the emblem of the Red Cross.
9. The sporadic massacres of the Armenians by the Turks from 1894 to 1915 were often the result of Armenian revolt precipitated by unfulfilled promises of reform; although the European powers intervened, they failed to agree on action for securing the reforms.
12. One of the main UN committees, it deals with social, humanitarian, and cultural affairs, being primarily concerned with the activity of the Economic and Social Council, under which the Commission on Human Rights was established.
15. The Council of Europe was created in 1949 to obtain European unity in protecting and realizing principles common to its members and to facilitate economic and social progress. It has been considered a possible first step toward a United States of Europe.
18. Sully Prudhomme (1839-1907), recipient of the first Nobel Prize in Literature (1901).
19. From Sonnet IX in La France: Sonnets, p. 160 of Poésies de Sully Prudhomme: 1872- 1878, Vol.3 of the Oeuvres (Paris: Lemerre, 1883-1904). The lines read:
“Je tiens de ma patrie un coeur qui la déborde,
Et plus je suis français, plus je me sens humain.”
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