Award ceremony speech

Presentation Speech by Mrs. Aase Lionaes*, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, Norwegian Storting

The last time the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to an individual was in 1964. The prize for that year was given to Martin Luther King. Today he is no longer alive. On April 4 of this year, so bitter a year for human rights, he fell at his post as leader of the Negroes’ nonviolent struggle for their rights. His death was one of the most grievous losses ever suffered by the world’s champions of peace and goodwill.

The Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament gratefully remembers Martin Luther King and invokes peace for his memory.

On November 27, 1895, in the Swedish Club of Paris, Alfred Nobel signed his testament which later became so famous. This was almost exactly one year before his death on December 10, 1896, at San Remo in Italy.

As is well known, Nobel decided that the income from his fortune should be divided into five equal parts and given as prizes to those who had made the greatest contributions to mankind. There is one sentence in this very short testament of his which makes us think of this year’s Peace Prize laureate, Professor Réne Cassin. That sentence is: “It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, so that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not.”

It is this respect for human worth, irrespective of nationality, race, religion, sex, or social position, which animates Professor Cassin’s life and work. And it is primarily for his contribution to the protection of human worth and the rights of man, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament today awards the Nobel Peace Prize to Réne Cassin.

Réne Cassin was born in 1887 in Bayonne in southern France. He drafted the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted on December 10, 1948, exactly twenty years ago today. At that time Cassin was about sixty years old. But although it was only then that his name became internationally known, he already had a long and rich life of service to mankind behind him.

Shortly after Cassin had completed his legal education, he was mobilized in the First World War. In 1916 a German bullet made him a war invalid and from then on he was mobilized in the demanding struggle for peace.

Let me mention the great efforts he made during the aftermath of the war in behalf of the disabled soldiers, the war widows, and the 800,000 orphaned French children. The organization which he formed and directed for their benefit had nearly one million members.1 And it was Cassin who was the driving force behind the social legislation which assured these war victims the social and economic protection they had a right to.

His work for those affected by the war was not limited to France. In 1921 and the years following, he arranged several conferences of war veterans from Italy, Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. As late as 1932 and 1933 large demonstrations were organized in support of the Disarmament Conference.2 Because of the disastrous political developments during the 1930’s in Europe – the growing fascism and nazism – these attempts to establish a climate of peace and understanding among the war veterans from all countries came to an end.

From 1924 until 1938 Cassin worked within the League of Nations for disarmament. When the war in France in 1940 led to an armistice after a few months, Rene Cassin was the first civilian to leave Bordeaux in response to General de Gaulle’s appeal. On June 20 he reached London, where he became de Gaulle’s minister of justice in exile. Here he prepared, among other things, the agreement between Winston Churchill and de Gaulle which was to become the charter of the Free French forces.3

The Vichy government4 then deprived him of his French citizenship and sentenced him to death in absentia.

The end of the Second World War was the beginning of perhaps the most important stage in Réne Cassin’s life. It was at this time that the people of all countries first came to understand clearly what the dimensions and what the nature of Hitler’s war had been. It had not been merely a total war for a political objective. It had been an annihilation of ethnic groups, a genocide which the world had never before experienced.

Public opinion was stunned by the reports of the atrocities in the concentration camps and of the extermination of those of Jewish origin. The general horror found expression in demands made on the governments of all nations to prevent a repetition of this assault on the value of human beings by adopting an international Bill of Rights.

This idea was realized in 1945 when the United Nations included the establishment of a Commission on Human Rights in its Charter. The Commission’s task was to compose a Universal Declaration of Human Rights and an international convention which would bind the states to make these rights a reality.

Through one of history’s whims it was a representative of France, Réne Cassin, and a representative of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt5, who became the architects of the Declaration of Human Rights. Over a hundred years before, both of these nations had adopted declarations guaranteeing the basic rights of man. I am referring to the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789.

But the Declaration of Human Rights, which Eleanor Roosevelt and Réne Cassin were to leave their marks upon so firmly, moved the stakes farther ahead than had either the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 – that is, it was also in the articles which dealt with economic and social rights, being influenced by the Russian Declaration of Rights of 1918.6

Eleanor Roosevelt was the chairman of the Commission on Human Rights, and Réne Cassin its vice-chairman. But it was Cassin who drew up the Declaration.

Perhaps some will say that the work for the rights of man, the struggle against discrimination toward the colored races, toward minorities, religious groups, and women – that all of this is noble, but does it have anything to do with peace?

No one has given a better, more truthful answer than Nordahl Grieg7 has given in these words in his poem “To Youth&quot:

Here is your protection against violence,
Here is your sword,
The belief in our life,
The worth of mankind.

The fifty nations which adopted the United Nations Charter in San Francisco in April, 1945, were also fully cognizant of the fact that lasting peace had to be built upon respect for the rights and worth of the individual human being. For what kind of peace can there be in a country where the people are not free – where they cannot express their thoughts or print their words, where they are not equal before the law, where they are subject to torture and degrading treatment?

In the Preamble of the Charter it is established that the objectives are peace and security. In the next section the member countries confirm their belief in the fundamental rights of man and the worth of the individual. It was this firm belief in the relation between respect for the rights of man and preservation of peace which lay behind the United Nations’ decision to work out this first universal declaration of human rights.

The Commission on Human Rights was confronted by a very difficult task.

To be sure, the United Nations Charter does mention several times that it will promote human rights. But we do not find these rights defined anywhere in the Charter. So the question was: what did human rights mean to the people from these fifty or sixty nations, coming as they did from all parts of the world and from different levels of cultural development, with diverse traditions, religions, and ideologies? The West European peoples have a somewhat similar understanding of this concept. But what do the Chinese, the Indonesians, and the people on Haiti see in the words freedom, equality, and cultural and economic rights? Were there in general any points of contact between the welfare states’ conception of these terms and that of the developing countries? For example, in the European countries, we can agree rather readily on what we mean by “the woman’s legal position in society.” But how is it interpreted by the people in those parts of the world where a woman’s value is equated with that of four camels?

In view of all these difficulties, it is not surprising that it took the Commission two years to work out formulations which everyone could accept at the United Nations’ General Assembly at Paris in 1948. But even there, where a completely prepared draft was presented to us,8 we spent two months in ninety-seven meetings discussing the Declaration. And a total of 1,200 ballots was taken on proposed amendments before the Declaration, with its thirty articles, was finally adopted.

But we had thus brought into existence a Declaration which stands as a standard for the common values of man, wherever he may live in the world, whatever the social system he may live under. The countries which voted for the Declaration did not commit themselves, but declared themselves in agreement that all people should have the right to life, liberty, and security of person; that all are equal before the law; that everyone is entitled to freedom of conscience, of religion, of expression, and of assembly; that everyone is entitled to the right to work, to equal compensation for equal work, to reasonable working hours, and to free education. Finally, the last article, Article 30, states: “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.”

To us who sit here, these rights sound like self-evident truths. A glance at conditions in the world around us will convince us, however, that in many states, yes, in most states, the promises of this simple Declaration are written in sand.

In the area of international law, however, the Declaration was a product of new thought. Whereas earlier treaties had regulated the relationships between nations and governments, this new Declaration made the individual himself the focus.

Man should be guaranteed these rights in whatever system of social organization he may live. Therefore, we can say that the Declaration of Human Rights is the constitution of a world society. It expresses our common ideals, and it embodies a goal which everyone can strive to attain. It is a standard by which we can measure the quality of the political system of any country.

The Declaration puts, therefore, a dividing line in history. It breaks away from the old, set doctrines of international law; yes, it allows us to look out over the boundaries of the old sovereign states toward a world society.

I know that the skeptics and pessimists will be quick to say that this lies a long way off. And I know they are right. But let us look for some bright spots. For they are there. We can see how the principles in the Declaration of Human Rights have already taken root in men’s minds. Many of the seventy or eighty new sovereign states established since the war have incorporated parts of or even the entire Declaration in their constitutions.

From a historical point of view I still believe that it is correct to say that the adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, marked the beginning of a new era. It might very well be the beginning of a revolutionizing evolution which will realize President Roosevelt’s dream – a world with freedom from fear and freedom from want.9

The Commission on Human Rights spent two years on the rough draft of the Declaration. In its extremely laborious work, in which each and every concept and the validity of each and every word were thoroughly aired in all languages, Professor Cassin held a key position. He formulated, defined, and clarified. He was crystal clear in his formulations and steadfast in his goal, but always cooperative and tolerant of the opinions of others. He upheld his ideas vigorously, but whenever he realized they had no immediate chance of being accepted, he was wise enough not to force the issue but to bide his time. The years that followed, which saw many new nations and new needs arise, proved to be ready for several of the proposals initially rejected in 1948 but now integrated in the text of the Convention.

Cassin also played a positive role as a mediator between the Western European way of thought, which emphasized civil and political rights, and the Eastern European viewpoint, which laid more weight on economic, social, and cultural rights.

And when the declaration of Human Rights – that came from many minds, many religions, many ideologies, and many hearts – was finally constructed, it was primarily the engineering feat of Réne Cassin. Then, how satisfied is Professor Cassin today with his work? In an article in the Jerusalem Post several weeks ago he says:

“The Declaration holds up an ideal for us, and it draws the guide lines for our actions. But a glance at reality today is enough to show us that we are far from the ideal. No country, not even the most advanced, can pride itself on fulfilling all the articles of the Declaration. Once the war and the ideals for which we fought have faded in the distance and new states have gained their independence, they are inclined to conduct their domestic affairs as they wish without regard to human rights.

We are witnessing the violation of the right to live. Murders and massacres are perpetrated with impunity. The exploitation of women, mass hunger, disregard for freedom of conscience and for freedom of speech, widespread racial discrimination – all these evils are far too prevalent to be overlooked.”10

But Professor Cassin does not despair over these shortcomings. He points to the significance of educational work, not only among children, but also among adults, in producing fertile soil for the growth of the Declaration’s ideas. And it was no coincidence that Cassin also became one of the authors of the UNESCO Charter.11

In the work of making the Declaration of Human Rights legally binding among the states, Réne Cassin has actively participated in the preparation of the two Covenants, which, eighteen years after the Declaration, were unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 1966.

During the eighteen years separating acceptance of the Declaration in 1948 and realization of the Convention in 1966, an important political development has taken place in individual countries and in the world as a whole. As an indication of this development, one can cite the fact that approximately sixty new countries became members of the United Nations between 1948 and 1966.

These new states had some interests entirely different from those of the other states in the United Nations. For them it was not a question of the old World’s classical political rights but of the principles concerning the right of self-determination for their countries and of control over their economic development. Consequently, one can say perhaps that these merging nations stood at the beginning of a development which the industrialized countries had long since completed.

This strong new element in the United Nations also left its imprint on the texts of the two Covenants, giving them a wider scope than the Declaration had originally aimed at. Nevertheless, for the first time in history, two international conventions intended to give man certain fundamental rights were unanimously adopted.

No country has yet ratified these two Covenants, one on civil and political rights and one on economic, social, and cultural rights. Thirty-five states must ratify them before they are valid. It should be mentioned as a hopeful note that the Norwegian government has declared itself willing to submit to the Parliament a proposal for the ratification of the Convention as soon as it is technically possible. It is reasonable to expect that the other Scandinavian countries will do the same.

It was on just such a cold December day as this, exactly twenty years ago, a little before midnight in the Palais de Chaillot, this historic declaration of human worth and human rights was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations.12

To the millions of people who live today in the darkness of oppression, this document was unknown. But a small light was lit, and the moral commandments contained in the Declaration, like those written on the tablets of Moses, will in the years to come play a forceful role in reforming the conscience of man and his understanding of what is right and wrong.

Today, where there is no respect for human rights and freedom, there is no peace either. Every day youth falls on the battlefield. Every day prisoners are led to prisons and torture chambers. They fight and they suffer for the ideals which the Declaration of Human Rights proclaims.

But the demand is made not only of them. It is made also of each and every one of us who live in such secure conviction that we have received these rights as inalienably our own. It is this very year of 1968 – precisely the Year of Human Rights – that has given us the tragic proof of the old truth: Peace, like freedom, is indivisible; it must be captured anew by everyone every single day.

* Mrs. Lionaes, president of the Lagting, a section of the Norwegian Parliament, delivered this speech on December 10, 1968, in the auditorium of the University of Oslo. At its conclusion, she presented the prize to the laureate who responded with a brief speech of acceptance. The translation of Mrs. Lionaes’ speech is based on the Norwegian text in Les Prix Nobel en 1968, which also carries a French translation.

1. The laureate was a founder or member of several veterans organizations, probably the one referred to here being the union federale des associations des mutiles et d’anciens combattants; he was also vice-chairman of the Conseil superieur des pupilles de la nation.

2. The conference was held under the auspices of the League of Nations, beginning February, 1932, and continuing for the next several years, although Germany’s withdrawal from the League in 1933 in effect destroyed its efforts.

3. Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970), French general and statesman, who, opposing the 1940 armistice, fled to England where Winston Churchill (1874-1965), then prime minister, agreed to support him and the Free French movement he instigated; he was later president of France (1945-1946; 1958-1969).

4. The French government set up in 1940 at Vichy, headed by Marshal Petain and subservient to the Germans, administered that part of France not occupied by Germany; after 1942 when Hitler occupied all of France, Pierre Laval, who had become virtual dictator of France a few months earlier, was a puppet ruler for the Germans.

5. (Anna) Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), wife of U.S. President F.D. Roosevelt; U.S. delegate to the UN (1945-1952) and chairman of the UN commission on Human Rights.

6. Contained in the first Soviet Constitution of July 10, 1918, and in the Constitution of May 11, 1925. see Aulard and Mirkine-Guetzevitch, Les Declarations des droits de l’homme, p.172 (Paris, 1929).

7. Nordahl Grieg (1902-1943), Norwegian poet.

8. Mrs. Lionaes was a Norwegian delegate to the UN (1946-1965) and therefore participated in the discussions.

9. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), U.S. president (1933-1945), whose annual message to congress of January 6, 1941, contained the often quoted passage on looking forward “to a world based on four essential freedoms…freedom of speech and expression…freedom of every person to worship God in his own way…freedom from want…freedom from fear…”

10. Also see Cassin, “How the Charter on Human Rights was Born”, UNESCO Courier, 21 (January, 1968) 6, vol. 2.

11. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, constituted in 1945 and formally established as a specialized agency of the UN in 1946; the laureate was a founder-delegate at its initial conferences and a delegate to several of its later ones.

12. To mark the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN designated 1968 as International Human Rights Year.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1951-1970, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972


Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1968

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