Universal Human Rights – founded on Jewish experience, inspired by Jewish values

JVL Introduction

We republish here a revised and extended version of a lecture delivered a year ago to a Jewish audience by Prof Francesca Klug, in order both to elucidate the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to highlight some of the specifically Jewish aspects which had contributed to its universality.

We are publishing this accessible statement of the history and significance of the Declaration now because of the exceptional threats and challenges to the idea of universal rights both in the UK and internationally.

The talk did not set out to capture the widespread denial of human rights in the world then and now, or attempt to apply the principles of the UDHR to particular cases, like Burma, South Africa, Palestine and so many others.

It set out, rather, to explain precisely what a gigantic contribution the Declaration was in its aim and vision of crafting ‘a big idea’, one which both parented all subsequent international human rights law and refigured other political beliefs and creeds, to fortify everyone (not just governments) to recognise when universal norms are breached and to speak out or stand up to defend them.

The author concludes that we are in greater danger today than at any other recent time since the UDHR was drafted, of losing its insights and wisdom and its edifice of common standards and norms. Never has it been more important than now, to stand up in its defence.

Universal Human Rights – founded on Jewish experience, inspired by Jewish values

Professor Francesca Klug is currently a Visiting Professor at LSE Human Rights and Sheffield Hallam’s Centre for International Justice.

A German, a Frenchman and a British Jew were marooned on a desert island. They decided to pass their time by setting up a writing contest about elephants.

After much reflection, Herr Schmidt produced a comprehensive inventory of all known herds.

Setting aside some initial embarrassment, Monsieur de Bois eventually chose to write a full and frank analysis of the animals’ sex lives.

But Mrs Cohen knew immediately which angle to explore: “What have Elephants ever done for the Jews?” she asked.

Well the elephant in the room is that you don’t have to be Jewish to understand human rights, but it certainly helps!

I say this at a moment when the ideas and values that we’ve become accustomed to associating with all liberal democracies are under enormous pressure and none more so than the notion that all human beings everywhere are of equal worth and dignity and deserve equal respect – the concept we call human rights for short.

Every one of us has a stake in this crisis.

And virtually everyone of us also has a link – through our heritage – to the emergence of the modern idea of universal human rights as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ( UDHR).


Let me begin by sharing my background.

In my early years I was brought up in a traditional Jewish family – by which I mean Friday nights with the candles lit and challah blessed, Shabbat mornings at Shul, and then my dad and brothers heading off to Arsenal in the afternoon.

But there was another way in which my upbringing was perhaps a little less traditional.

Food from Apartheid South Africa was considered as traif as bacon. Martin Luther King loomed as large as Moses and Nelson Mandela eclipsed the Maccabees.

In other words, I grew up understanding that my Jewish heritage was a gateway to a wider world of solidarity and social awareness. The particular was a route to the universal, not a barrier to it.

Like many of us with a Jewish background, stories about my own immediate ancestors fleeing pogroms and poverty and members of my extended family surviving Auschwitz or disappearing without trace, became embedded in my consciousness; helping to shape the adult I became and my reaction to events here and around the world.

Attending a Jewish primary school in the 1960s meant that all my fellow pupils came from a similar background. Lots of my friends’ parents spoke with a foreign accent; some with numbers tattooed on their arms.

So when I first came across the UDHR many years later, (after I started working at the human rights NGO Liberty just as the Berlin Wall was coming down in 1989) I was deeply moved by its language and contents.

I recognised immediately what the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was alluding to when it referred to “barbarous acts which outraged the conscience of mankind.”

And I was moved to discover that such horrors had produced not just more horrors and more nationalisms, but something so positive and hopeful – and most importantly – universal in both scope and application.

With the ghosts of my extended family hovering in the background, I came gradually to understand the rich and multiple drivers behind the UDHR.

It is these drivers that I want to explore in this lecture.

I will start with a broad introduction to the Declaration, clarifying, in particular, what was new about it;

I’ll then home in with a lens I’ve never fully explored before – the specifically Jewish influences on universal human rights;

I’ll conclude with some reflections on how much trouble human rights are in lately and my belief in the renewed relevance of the Universal Declaration to our world now.

So first, my brief introduction to the UDHR: it was adopted by the General Assembly of the fledgling United Nations (UN) in 1948, in the wake of World War Two. This means it turned 70 quite recently, December 10th 2018. A landmark birthday! But it is notable that the United Kingdom made no attempt at all to celebrate this notable anniversary .

I had to go to Paris to see large posters heralding each of the UDHR’s Articles, hanging over the Gare Du Nord.

Here we were more comfortable commemorating the 800th anniversary of the iconic Magna Carta, which was lauded with great fanfare by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron. This was despite the fact that very little of it is still in force, including – thankfully – some nasty references to women and Jews (unsurprising in a medieval document, of course).

What’s to celebrate about the UDHR anyway, you may reasonably ask?

If we look around us we see human rights abuses almost everywhere, don’t we?

Or perhaps we too often avert our eyes and focus on ourselves, or on something more palatable, as the scale of atrocities can sometimes seem overwhelming, can’t it?

The list of countries and peoples affected will be familiar to us all. Members of just about every continent, faith and ethnic group, including Jewish people, have been both victims and perpetrators; a form of universalism, I guess, although not quite as the drafters of the UDHR had envisaged it.

So if the Declaration is viewed as a product of a “never again” moment at the end of World War 2, aimed at eliminating human rights abuses world-wide for all time, then it has self-evidently failed.

I would put it as strongly as that!

But even at their most optimistic, the UDHR drafters didn’t imagine they’d banish all state oppression and human cruelty.

To judge the Declaration’s impact by the unachievable target of eliminating human rights violations everywhere, is not only implausible but a misunderstanding of its essential purpose, in my view.

This was, in essence, to craft “A BIG IDEA”.

Not an ideology, but a fresh vision to refigure other political beliefs and creeds

A vision reflected in a set of common standards and values, aimed not just at addressing state abuses but influencing human relations and inspiring new struggles in the post-war era that was then dawning.

This is how Nelson Mandela viewed the adoption of the UDHR at any rate, so he testified fifty years later. It gave him “hope,” he wrote, that he and his fellow black South Africans “were not alone,” even as Apartheid was enforced in the same year the UDHR was adopted[1].

To appreciate this point, it’s important to understand that the UDHR is only partly addressed to states.

WHY? Because recent history had graphically demonstrated that governments, however despotic, rarely act alone but rely on the collaboration of individual citizens.

So it’s to humans – to “the peoples of the United Nations” – that the UDHR firstly speaks and to “every individual and every organ of society”, as the Preamble puts it, whose promotion of “rights and freedoms” is vital , the Preamble continues, for their “full realisation.”

The UDHR’s central premise is that we are “all members of the human family,” as the very first sentence puts it (it’s hard to exaggerate what a radical statement that was in 1948) and that the “inherent dignity and… equal and inalienable rights” of human beings are the foundation of “freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

The UDHR’s central aim was to fortify everyone (not just governments) to recognise when such norms are breached and speak out or stand up to defend them.

The Declaration was, in other words, centred on establishing a kind of ethical framework for humankind, not just a set of legal entitlements or global standards.

Eleanor Roosevelt, President of the UN Commission responsible for drafting the UDHR, described it as an instrument of “moral persuasion” .

We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind” she declared at its adoption in 1948.

Eleanor is famous, of course, as the wife of the war-time American President. But this seriously underestimates her own contribution to human history, captured in her famous saying: “a woman is like a tea bag: you only know how strong she is when she gets into hot water.”

Like all the principal drafters, including Dr Charles Malik, a Lebanese Christian, P C Chang, a Chinese Confucian and René Cassin, a French Jew, Eleanor was driven not just by her personal or state ideology, but by the unprecedented chain of events which had recently turned their world upside down.

Economic and political turmoil in the 1920s and 1930s had culminated in the rise of populism and fascism across Europe, followed by global war and genocide, growing awareness of Stalin’s atrocities and the planet’s first nuclear attack on Hiroshima & Nagasaki.

What’s new?

The UDHR was in a sense a product of all these cataclysmic events but it represented something new in 3 distinct ways:

First, whilst the idea of fundamental rights clearly did not begin in 1948, the notion that they apply to everyone everywhere, was new. The UDHR was in fact midwife to 2 modern principles:

  1. That human rights are universal in the sense that, regardless of nationality, everyone is eligible for them, simply because of our common humanity (not just white, European, Christian men)
  2. That human rights are international in the sense that national sovereignty must not provide a cloak behind which governments hide, claiming that abuses against their own citizens (or residents) are their own business, provided states comply with national laws.

The absence at that time of any international legal framework to directly protect civilians, rather than states, was one of the main drivers behind the campaigns that led to the UDHR.

Although not strictly legally enforceable itself, the UDHR has transformed international law.

Some of the Declaration’s Articles have been cited so frequently in domestic courts around the world that they are widely considered part of binding, customary international law.

More significantly, the UDHR has parented more than 50 human rights treaties that are legally binding.

In addition, it has procreated all the human rights monitoring bodies, commissions, courts and tribunals which we take for granted now, grumbling about them not achieving enough, or making bad decisions, but forgetting that none of these protections existed 70 years ago.

For all its intermittent bad press (sometimes for good reasons) this post-war, rules-based architecture has provided safeguards – and sometimes lifelines – for thousands of people all over the world, especially when national laws have failed them, including here in the UK.

The second unique aspect of the UDHR is reflected in the equal status given to economic, social and cultural rights, like entitlements to work and to leisure, alongside civil and political liberties like freedom from torture and slavery.

This was to be a new approach to liberty, signalling that freedom without the economic wherewithal to live a dignified life, is no freedom at all.

Although a product of state delegates at the UN, the draft of the UDHR captured the more positive mood of the immediate post-war era, combining hostility to state oppression with a greater respect for collectivist solutions to social ills.

The 2019 UN Report into poverty in the UK drafted by Professor Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty & Human Rights, was a recent product of this approach to human rights. Citing accounts of people choosing between heating their homes or eating, children turning up to school hungry and increased homelessness and food bank use, Alston concluded that “much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.” His report didn’t end austerity, of course, but it did shine a light in dark places, empowering the voices of the voiceless in a way that statistical analyses rarely can.

Similarly, a 2017 UN Inquiry into the Rights of People with Disabilities in the UK highlighted the disproportionate impact of benefit cuts on disabled people in Britain who had taken the brunt of austerity measures to meet a deficit caused, not by disabled people of course, but by failing banks, greed and indebtedness.

Back in 1948, the UDHR drafters were not oblivious to the link between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the contagious nationalism which followed, snuffing out hopes for a new democratic world order under the auspices of the abortive League of Nations.

This context helps to clarify the third unique characteristic of the UDHR and perhaps the least widely appreciated. It was shaped by a very different set of drivers to those which spurred the late 18th Century Enlightenment.

To conflate the two rights movements, as some do, is a basic category error, in my view.

The influence of the iconic French and American bills of rights on the UDHR – products of struggles against church and state –was dwarfed by the mosaic of beliefs and creeds of the Declaration’s authors, including: Social Democracy, Christian Democracy, Socialism, Liberalism, Communism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism.

Despite their famous saying “liberty, equality and fraternity”, the Enlightenment revolutionaries’ focus was mostly on liberty, whilst their trademark was rationality.

The UDHR drafters, by contrast – reflecting their cross-cultural backgrounds – insisted that human beings are endowed with “conscience” not just “reason” .

The significance of adding “conscience” to “reason” was as great as combining “human” with “rights” in the Declaration.

Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” is transformed in the UDHR’s vision to “I think and feel, therefore I am.”

In other words, empathy is as crucial as rationality, the UDHR asserts, if you want to create a better world.

As a non-enforceable Declaration, even the word “rights” is to some degree a misnomer in the UDHR, contributing to a longstanding confusion between human and legal rights.

As a set of moral standards applicable to all human beings, regardless of state laws, the UDHR might more appropriately have been labelled a Declaration of Human Dignity or Humanity.

In fact, far from just repackaging the legal entitlements associated with the European Enlightenment for global consumption, the drafters of the UDHR had to face up to the failure of so-called Enlightenment values to eliminate slavery (except in Haiti), emancipate women and prevent the persecution – and ultimately mass murder – of those who didn’t fit a perverted European norm, because they were Communist, disabled, gay, Roma or Jewish.

This takes us back to our elephant in the room: the Jewish story which is inextricably connected to the events that led up to the Declaration, and therefore to its vision.

In essence this Jewish linkage to universal human rights has three elements:

  • historical experience
  • advocacy and authorship
  • values & ethics.

I will explore each in turn.

Historical experience

Beginning with historical experience, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the UDHR is that it was written at all. It wasn’t inevitable, but ultimately derived from human tragedy, prolonged struggles and heated negotiations. It was also driven by hope and optimism in the capacity of humans to learn from the past to build a better future.

You won’t find the word “Holocaust” cited anywhere in the UDHR debates; it would have been surprising if it had been, decades before the term was widely used. But there were umpteen references to Nazism, Hitler, fascism, and the “monstrous crimes” committed during the war.

As the Preamble makes clear, it was those “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind,” (that I referred to earlier) which were both the prelude to, and driver of, the Declaration.

The core Nazi doctrine justifying persecution and genocide was ‘life unworthy of living’. The core purpose of the UDHR was to register that every life is of equal worth.

In other words, the drafters never lost sight of the human beings – the men, women and children – who’d forfeited “the right to have rights” (as the philosopher Hannah Arendt famously put it).

Whilst previous rights declarations focused solely on citizens of specific countries, an awareness of those who had never been accepted as full citizens of the states they lived in, helped shape the drafters’ conclusions.

Contrasting with the original 1789 American constitution where slaves were counted as “ three fifths of all other Persons,” both “slavery and the slave trade” was to be “prohibited everywhere.” Article 6 of the UDHR stating: “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law,” went further and was clearly aimed at stateless or precarious citizens, like my grandparents.

But central to the deliberations of the drafters were those whose lives had been destroyed by very recent events.

By the time the UDHR was being debated at the UN there was a growing awareness of the annihilation of half of European Roma and two-thirds of Europe’s Jews; and a dawning that such colossal atrocities don’t come out of nowhere.

It was within that context that what we would recognise as the modern formulation of non-discrimination and equal treatment was enshrined in the UDHR for the first time; a significant advance on the Enlightenment principle of formal equality before the law.

Yet notwithstanding this focus, which is deeply meaningful to all of us with a Jewish heritage, the drafting process of the UDHR should not be sentimentalised.

There were millions of other people around the world who were also disenfranchised but who were not uppermost in the minds of many of the UN delegates drafting the Declaration or, if they were, it was only to exclude them.

The whole of sub-Saharan Africa was unrepresented at the UN in 1948 due to Europe’s imperial rule of the continent. This has legitimately fuelled questions about the applicability of labelling the Declaration universal at all.

Delegates from newly independent states (like Egypt and India) embarrassed the imperial powers who were nervous that messages about universality would increase the pressure on them to withdraw from their colonies.

Britain shamelessly tried to resist attempts to include people living under imperial rule, but was eventually defeated by an Egyptian amendment.

Meanwhile Apartheid was becoming entrenched in South Africa in 1948, leading it to abstain from the Declaration altogether. It was joined by Saudi Arabia, the USSR and five Soviet satellite states – an interesting family of nations!

Yet René Cassin was determined to ensure the principle of universality endured. The UDHR was applicable to “everyone or to no one” he said. It was vital to stress “the fundamental principle of the unity of the human race,” Cassin continued, as Hitler had “started by asserting the inequality of men [even] before attacking their liberties.[2]

Consequently, most of the UDHR’s 30 Articles begin with the inclusive word “everyone”, the most common term in all human-rights instruments.

Advocacy and Authorship

Speaking of Cassin, advocacy and authorship provide the second major link between Jews and human rights and they are, of course, intimately connected to the first.

René Cassin was far from the only Jewish advocate driving forward modern human rights.

Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide, was the moving force behind the 1948 Genocide Convention, the sister treaty to the UDHR, whilst Hersch Lauterpacht brought crimes against humanity into modern international law, via the Nuremberg Tribunal.

Like Cassin, Lemkin and Lauterpacht were themselves émigrés from European fascism who lost many close family members in the Holocaust.

Lauterpacht, by then a Cambridge University law professor, produced his own version of an International Bill of Rights during the war.

This was at the invitation of the American Jewish Committee, and it influenced the draft of the UDHR.

Lauterpacht was therefore understandably disappointed not to be selected as the UK delegate to Roosevelt’s Commission on Human Rights.

He discovered that the discrimination he’d experienced in Galicia, where he was barred from his final university exam, did not end when he made his home in England.

The Foreign Office’s chief legal advisor, Eric Beckett, advised that his appointment would be “disastrous”.

“When all is said and done” he wrote, “Professor Lauterpacht, although a distinguished …international lawyer is… a Jew fairly recently come from Vienna.”

The UN delegate, Mr Beckett suggested, needed to be “a very English Englishman… imbued throughout his life and hereditary to the real meaning of human rights as we understand them in this country.” [3]

Despite, or maybe because of, this evident defect in his hereditary, Lauterpacht, like Cassin and other exiles from Nazism, was amongst the first to argue that the post-war international architecture needs to be grounded on a firm human-rights footing.

After the war ended, more than 40 civic and religious organisations convened at the San Francisco Conference, to debate the scope of the new United Nations Charter.

They included Christian groups, the famous US civil rights body, the NAACP and the American Jewish Committee.

Although the extent of their influence is debated by historians, these civil society advocates undoubtedly impacted on the American government’s eventual support for including human rights within the UN Charter itself.

Without this achievement there would almost certainly have been no impetus to draft the UDHR amidst the other priorities facing the fledgling body at the end of World War Two.

Once the drafting process was under way, Cassin played a particularly crucial role in shaping its form and content.

As a former French law professor and Resistance member who fled to Britain, this was not just a question of intellectual interest, but a very personal project for a Jewish exile who’d recently discovered he’d lost nearly 30 family members in the Holocaust.

Cassin later served as a judge, and then President, of the European Court of Human Rights. But it was for his work as a prime drafter of the UDHR that he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968. Whilst Cassin would probably have blanched at being equated with Moses, the Nobel Chair compared the UDHR to the 10 Commandments.

In a subsequent essay titled “From the 10 Commandments to the Rights of Man” [4] Cassin, himself, did not shy away from drawing such analogies.

Ethics and Values

This brings us to the 3rd and final link between human rights and the Jewish story: ethics and values.

Reading the delegates’ debates, the cross-cultural inputs into the draft are evident, in which Jewish ethics played a notable part.

Although clearly aimed at those of any faith or none, the Declaration has been described by some clerics of different faiths as of ‘divine origin.’

By this they generally mean that it reflects the notion, in Genesis [1.27], that human beings are created in the image of god [5] b’tzelem Elohim [6].”

This phrase has many interpretations, of course, but the one that has resonated most with me is illustrated by the Hassidic tale of a poorly dressed Rebbe who took a lengthy train ride to a town far away from his Polish shtetl.

During the journey he was subject to repeated insults and verbal abuse from Shmuel, a rather better dressed fellow traveller. When they finally arrived at their destination, the Rebbe was greeted at the station by thousands of excited disciples leaving Shmuel mortified.

“I’m so ashamed Rebbe!” Shmuel shrieked, “I had no idea who you were. Please accept my apologies.”

To which the Rebbe replied: “Don’t apologize to me. Apologize to everyone else. When you insulted me, you did so because you saw me as the same as everyone else.”

A person’s worth is not transactional, in other words, [7] a value that lies behind every single Article of the UDHR.

Admittedly, the drafters adopted what we might describe as a more secular language than Genesis.

Yet just as Cassin insisted that “human rights are an integral part of the faith and tradition of Judaism,” he explicitly maintained that the UDHR’S very 1st Article– with its commandment that “[We] should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” – corresponds to two iconic biblical injunctions:

  1. “Love thy neighbour as yourself” [Leviticus]
  2. “You shall not oppress the stranger… for you were strangers once” [repeated at least 36 times in the Hebrew scriptures]. [8]

Universalism, in other words, was not just intended to refer to rights holders but to duty-bearers so that human-rights violations, whilst usually the direct responsibility of states, should be everybody in the world’s concern.

The 1946 Nuremburg Tribunal had already established the legal principle that in wartime individuals have duties which transcend rules of obedience imposed by an individual state.

But now this broad philosophical approach, directed at all of us, was to be transposed into the non-legally binding UDHR.

Its clearest expression is in the penultimate Article 29, largely drafted by Cassin, which begins: “Everyone has duties to the community.”

PC Chang, the Chinese delegate, put it like this: “the aim… was not to ensure the selfish gains of the individual but to try and increase man’s moral stature… ”

One way of summarising the principles distilled in the UDHR is that they represent the “wisdom of the ages”, or as the Turkish-Jewish scholar Seyla Benhabib has put it, they “reflect[ed] the moral learning experiences, not only of Western humanity but humanity at large…” [9]

So, finally, what are the lessons for now?

There are many ways of characterizing the UDHR, but a simple one that comes to mind is that its vision is the polar opposite of the rhetoric gaining traction now.

Western democracies, like most other states, have always abused human rights, of course, whilst valuing them as a means by which the West can judge the rest.

But there has been no time since 1948 when democratic states which once claimed to champion human rights have so fiercely articulated a world-view, and mind-set, which directly or indirectly undermines them.

And this is being noticed everywhere.

The Chinese artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei, recently remarked that “the West has all but abandoned its…support for the precious ideals… in declarations on universal rights. ” [10]

In fact, in the 30 years I have been writing about human rights, I can remember no period when we’ve been in greater danger of losing the insights and wisdom of the UDHR and its edifice of common standards and norms

Instead of “making America or Britain or wherever great again”,– a perfectly imaginable response at the end of World War Two, – a prime aim of the Declaration was to promote “cooperation” between member states.

Instead of a discourse about “taking back control” from transnational bodies, the UDHR called time on nation states only policing themselves.

Instead of asserting, that “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” (that was our former Prime Minister in 2016) the UDHR explicitly stated that that we all belong to one “human family”.

This wasn’t to deny the importance of national or cultural identity to many individuals and groups, of course, but to emphasise that when the chips are down, and life and liberty are at stake, humanity should always trump nationality.

Now the world holds its breath as Donald Trump puts “America first” (I must have missed the time when it was second), boasts of being a “nationalist”, finds an equivalence between neo-Nazis and anti-fascists, and sheds multilateral treaties even quicker than he sheds staff!

One of the insights of post-war human rights is that, unlike the famed first amendment of the Enlightenment-era American Bill of Rights, free expression should not be limitless: words can be lethal.

That is why there are necessary and proportionate restrictions on hate speech in all relevant post-war human-rights instruments.

And yet, as we observed to devastating effect in Pittsburgh and El Paso, politicians indulging in “dog whistles” – like “migrant invasions” and “globalists” – can arguably inspire consequences far beyond the control of even the most powerful political leader in the world.

Did you imagine you’d ever hear an American President give a nod and a wink to the conspiracy theory of a supposed link between George Soros (the latest Jewish capitalist/ communist “bogey-man”) and migration to the USA, indirectly bolstering the so-called “great replacement theory” about the hidden hand of Jewish power behind non-white immigration; a theory circulating amongst some of the alt-right in Europe as well.

After the Tree of Life synagogue slaughter in Pittsburgh some Jewish leaders wrote: President Trump, you are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you cease your assault on immigrants and refugees. The Torah teaches that every human being is made in the image of God. This means all of us.”

As we’ve seen, they could also have cited the UDHR and its insight that when there are unwarranted attacks on some of us, there is no protection for any of us.

In this spirit, Mark Hetfield, head of the long-standing Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, memorably tweeted after the Pittsburgh attack: “We used to say we welcomed refugees because they were Jewish. Now we say we welcome refugees because *we* are Jewish. We know what persecution and terror is. We are a refugee people.”

It is unsurprising, therefore, that Trump sees international human rights as a threat. He is not the first democratically elected leader to do so but he is the first to establish a Commission on Unalienable Rights, tasked with providing so-called “fresh thinking” about human-rights discourse where it has apparently “departed from” America’s “founding principles” of “natural rights”.

This is definitely good news for gun holders as their rights are founded in the apparently “natural law” of the Constitution. Likewise, the death penalty is also safe.

But not so international human rights! In fact the US administration increasingly refuses to engage altogether with UN human-rights monitors & committees.

As we know, Trump is in good company here. Across continents, elected “strongmen rulers”, – from Bolsonaro to Duterte, Modi to Netanyahu – appear to bolster each other as they denounce or deport human-rights defenders and NGOs that their countries quite recently championed.

Here in the UK, by repeatedly threatening to undermine or bypass the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), we can boast the distinction of having been in the vanguard of destabilising the entire international human rights edifice.

In promoting the narrative that, as former Justice Minister, Michael Gove put it in 2016, “Human rights are seen as something that are done to British courts and the British people as a result of foreign intervention”, [11] we’ve given succour to the regimes in Russia, Iran and Kenya.

In turning their back on universal norms, they’ve explicitly referenced our assertion of national sovereignty against the [so-called] “intrusion” of universal human rights.

Now it is clear that in the wake of Brexit (and after withdrawing from the EU Human Rights Charter) the government has the Human Rights Act (which incorporates most of the ECHR) in its sights next.

This appears to be a personal mission of Dominic Cummings, Chief Advisor to the Prime Minister, who has warned that after Brexit “we’ll be coming for the ECHR referendum… and we’ll win that by more than 52-48.” [12]

Meanwhile, throughout most of Europe, we are witnessing a well-documented surge in racism, Islamophobia (Muslims are undoubtedly in the front line now), antisemitism and anti-Roma hatred, with the number of far- or alt-right extremists arrested in Europe nearly doubling recently.

Notwithstanding contrary signs of resistance and retrenchment in a number of places, few of us born in Europe after world war two imagined we’d see anything like the recent populist surges in countries like Italy, Poland and Hungary in our lifetimes.

Increased support for the far right in Germany is often linked to Angela Merkel’s exceptional act of welcoming almost one million asylum seekers.

But Hungary and Poland have not accepted a single refugee under the EU quota system, suggesting leadership and ideology are also crucial in the national stories states tell themselves.

In essence, we’re witnessing a struggle between what are claimed to be two different versions of democracy. So-called “illiberal democracy” (as Orban described his Hungarian model) allegedly reflecting “the popular will”, stands in contrast to “liberal democracies” that intentionally put limits on “the popular will” to protect the rights, and sometimes the lives, of marginalised individuals and minorities.

The consensus which for most of our lifetimes protected that invisible line between these two models is breaking down before our eyes.

None of this is to imply we’re reliving the precise conditions that preceded World War Two, of course. History rarely repeats itself, either as tragedy or farce.

But that’s not the point!

The UDHR was not written for the past, for that was already over and could not be undone.

It was written, in fact, for a precise moment like now – what Martin Luther King called the “fierce urgency of now” – to equip us to recognize when forgetfulness returns, as the Declaration’s drafters knew it surely would.

It was written to fortify us when lessons learnt from genocide and war are replaced by a new narrowing of the horizon, as national pride and international indifference re-emerge in fresh forms, as they surely are now.

As in the 1930s, this current wave appears mainly driven by a backlash against the grotesque inequalities and marginalisation of whole communities who’ve not shared in the benefits of globalisation and whose understandable resentments are ruthlessly exploited by those who’ve gained the most.

But as “us and them” increasingly replace “we and everyone”; as pooling sovereignty or adopting regional or international norms are characterised as becoming a “vassal state”; the danger is not an announcement in some late-night tweet that the UDHR will be formally overturned.

The greater threat is that “we the people” forget or reject the international norms of solidarity and humanity that the “barbarous acts” gave expression to; that wherever we live in the world, we are seduced by nativism or nationalisms which obliterate such norms.



Yet I want to conclude with some causes for optimism. As evidence of what UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, has described as the UDHR’s “revolutionary impact”, human rights have become a kind of lingua franca for struggles around the globe, from Hong Kong to Palestine, Kashmir to Sudan. This may sound surprising, but the UDHR is the most translated document in the world, even beating the Bible.

And you don’t have to have read the text of the UDHR to be inspired by it.

A YouGov poll of the 80 greatest landmarks of the last 80 years placed the UDHR fourth, beaten only by penicillin, the internet and computers.

The global south might have been under-represented in the UDHR’s drafting process, but this is where human rights now have most potency.

All around the world, people who may feel disconnected from other political ideologies describe themselves as human-rights defenders, from LGBTQ groups resisting legalized (and potentially lethal) homophobia in parts of East Africa, to detained asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea, who in 2017 were movingly filmed chanting “human rights help us; human rights help us.”

Boosted by new technology, the language of human rights provides visibility and solidarity across continents, to a degree unimaginable 70 years ago.

And here and throughout Europe ordinary people have shown extraordinary courage in risking – and sometimes facing – imprisonment by blocking planes from deporting migrants or rescuing refugees from drowning as they seek sanctuary from persecution and poverty, just as my grandparents did over a century ago.

To close as I began, on a personal note: whilst the Torah’s dictum: “Justice, justice you shall pursue” is clearly recognisable as a driving force behind the UDHR, much as it is said to be a driver of Judaism, for me the main link between human rights and my Jewish heritage is experiential rather than spiritual.

Like many others brought up in a Jewish family, I was told stories of lives hanging in the balance, dependant on whether people spoke up or remained silent, took action or pretended not to see; not just during World War Two but in the centuries of persecution and pogroms that preceded it.

Even if this made little difference to the outcome, I came to appreciate that “speaking out,” wherever in the world atrocities occur, provides solace and solidarity to those who need them most.

That’s what I understand to be the central message of the UDHR.

To paraphrase the great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Hillel: “All the rest is commentary.” [13]

About the author:
Francesca Klug is a former research professor at the LSE where she directed  the Human Rights Futures Project. At King’s College law school she  assisted the then government in devising the Human Rights Act (HRA). Throughout her career Francesca Klug has written and lectured widely on human rights. Values for a Godless Age: the story of the UK’s New Bill of Rights was published by Penguin in 2000. Francesca’s column for The Guardian’s Comment is Free, ‘Blogging the Bill of Rights’, was published as a booklet by Liberty in June 2010. Her most recent book, A Magna Carta for all Humanity, homing in on human rights. was published  by Routledge in  2015 to coincide with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. She has written regularly for legal and political journals and the national press and was a frequent broadcaster.


[1] Nelson Mandela quoted in B van der Heijden & B Tahzib-Lie (eds), Reflections on the UDHR: a 50th anniversary anthology (Kluwer, 1998) 256

[2] Quoted in Winter, J and Prost, A, René Cassin and Human Rights, from the Great War to the Universal Declaration, Cambridge University Press, 2013, p252.

[3] Stephen Sedley “Be Careful What you Wish for”, London Review of Books, 30 August 2018.

[4] Rene Cassin, “From the Ten Commandments to the Rights of Man”, in Of Law and Man – Essays in Honor of Haim H. Cohn, ed. S. Shoham, (New York: Tel Aviv, 1971), accessed Sep 28, 2014

[5] Bishop Carlos Belo, East Timorese recipient of 1966 Nobel Peace Prize ( Kluwer,1998)

[6] And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

[7] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/created-in-gods-image/

[8] Rene Cassin, “From the Ten Commandments to the Rights of Man”, in Of Law and Man – Essays in Honor of Haim H. Cohn, ed. S. Shoham, New York: Tel Aviv, 1971, accessed Sep 28, 2014

[9] Seyla Benhabib, Dignity in Diversity: human rights in troubled times, Polity, 2011, 74

[10] Ai Weiwei, “The refugee crisis isn’t about refugees. It’s about us,” The Guardian, 20 February 2018.

[11] House of Commons select committee, February 2016, reported by Aaron Walawalkar, RightsInfo, 24th July 2019

[12] Dominic Cummings BLOG, 24 March, 2018. See also Adam Wagner , Prospect, 9 June, 2019

[13] According to the Talmudic story, when the first century-BC rabbinic sage, Hillel, was asked to relate the whole Torah on one foot he replied ““That which is hateful to you, do not do unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — [and now] go study.”

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