'/> Uncommon Hours: Today in history: “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights”
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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Today in history: “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights”

By Bob Sommer, Uncommon Hours



“To write in ignorance of the philosophical horizon – or refusing to acknowledge the punctuation, the groupings and separations determined by the words that mark this horizon – is necessarily to write with facile complacency.”
– Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster (quoted in Geoffrey H. Hartman, The Fateful Question of Culture)

We celebrate words today: the 60th anniversary of the adoption of "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights" by the United Nations.

The atrocities of the Nazi regime, Winston Churchill declared, were “a crime without a name.” More important to Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the UN Commission on Human Rights, than naming the crime, however, was naming the rights that had been unspeakably violated by the Nazis in their effort to purge the planet of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, political opponents, and anyone generally not to their liking.

To Geoffrey H. Hartman and many others who write of it, the Holocaust (the “Shoah”) was epochal. There will forever be a before and after. The "Declaration" offered, therefore, not only a code to live by in the “after,” but a statement of what had been wrong in the "before," if only because it had never been declared without regard to geography, political division, or any other marker that separates one human from another. The task was to write – that supremely definitive human ability – what it meant to be human.

Committees are notoriously unwieldy when it comes to writing. And this committee had its task additionally challenged by differences of ethnicity, heritage, geography, and language. Indeed, the document would require terms that translated well, definitively, without idiom or vocabulary that might be misconstrued. Perhaps only the committees writing the Oxford English Dictionary and the King James Bible were equally challenged.

The task took three years, but finally, on December 10, 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt stood before the UN and firmly insisted that that body adopt "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights" at that very session, which it did, with unanimous consent, and only the notable abstentions of Saudi Arabia, the Soviet Union and its satellites, and South Africa.

The "Declaration" has since become a foundation document referenced by constitutions and relied upon by human rights groups all over the world.

Its value only seems that much greater in the tumult of history since it was written.

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