Human Rights Day 1973: The “Liberation” of the Universal Declaration

While the 1970s have been, properly, identified by recent scholarship as a moment of efflorescence for universal human rights, the picture, at least in the earlier part of the decade, was less than radiant.  The Universal Declaration’s twenty-fifth anniversary was, for the most part, submerged – much more thoroughly so than it had been at ten, or even at twenty.  The occasion was instead the platform to launch the International Decade to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination.   At the Plenary meeting which ratified the decision in October 1972, a few minutes were devoted to the agenda item on a “Programme for the observance of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” – which was concluded rapidly, to allow for hours of rhetoric on national liberation, racial discrimination, and the importance of armed struggle in southern Africa and, on Cuba’s insistence, Puerto Rico. It was the most striking symbolic representation of the relationship between universal human rights, anti-racism, and violent insurrection.  The struggle against racial discrimination, a sub-set of a much broader human rights concept, had almost consumed the parent category.  1948 was cited insofar as it underwrote the crusade, rarely much further.

Discussion of human rights had been asphyxiated by one hyper-privileged element of the discourse.  It had also become apparent that for many states, opposition to racism was impelled by, and associated with, philosophies that were less concerned with universal, rights-bearing citizens.  Accordingly, the Decade represented more than mere partiality to an especially provocative and visible human rights abuse – it was indicative of a new understanding of what human rights were, or should be, among the many states in the General Assembly.  Collective liberations of race, nation, and peoples were human rights.  For a large swathe of the UN, the tension between person and people, between national and individual, was resolved as meaning liberation of peoples and nations.  No longer was self-determination conceived of as a means for securing human rights.  Liberating peoples occurred solely in the aggregate.  It was endorsed in formulations that spoke of all necessary means, the sanctity of armed struggle, and material support for freedom fighters.  Extremity was preferred.  Liberation would be violent if possible, peaceful if not.

UN Headquarters had already liberated itself of its Human Rights Division.  The twenty-fifth anniversary of the Universal Declaration was the year when the human rights program was transposed to Geneva, a decision that was justified on the basis of cost initially, with the necessary extension of office space cheaper in Switzerland. A rapid change in exchange rates rendered that rationale redundant almost as soon as it was announced.  No new excuse was furnished.  Privately, a delegate from one of the Asian states disclosed the actual motivation, which was “to downgrade the importance of human rights within the UN both psychologically and administratively.” Human rights NGOs were appalled. A senior official from the Secretariat observed that the human rights program would “be more asleep” in its new home.  Outside the UN, the salience of human rights was undiminished. Human Rights NGOs, notably the International League for Human Rights, were in close proximity to UN Plaza in New York – which made the logistical aspects of activism with limited resources much more favourable.  This was precisely the problem for repressive regimes and their allies, particularly as the new mechanisms for petition started to show some prospect of partial efficacy and meaning.

The previous year, the UN had received more than 27,000 petitions. Although the proceedings of the high-political plenary sessions in New York tended to suggest otherwise, not all of them were related to southern Africa, or US imperialism in Puerto Rico.  A number were from the Soviet Union, despite the ban on receipt of communications at the UN offices, imposed by Secretary-General U Thant in 1969 after a petition was presented by Soviet citizens to the UN Information Centre in Moscow. This did not tarnish his human rights credentials with the Assembly – Thant himself was one of the recipients of a 1973 UN Human Rights Award.  While the Soviet petitions were not examined, Brazil, Indonesia, Tanzania, Iran, Portugal, and the United Kingdom had all had communications from their nationals studied in recent sessions.

National liberation crusading approached its zenith in the 1973 session.  In the months that followed the October War, the atmosphere was coarsened by speeches that were articulated with all manner of asperities on Zionism, Zionist-Nazism, the Apartheid-Zionist nexus, and the global conspiratorial axis of neo-colonialism.  Dependent upon the speaker, this variously extended from London through Salisbury, Tel-Aviv, Bonn, Pretoria, Washington, Lisbon, and even Taipei, which suggested more a Bezier curve or higher-order polynomial spline, as opposed to an axis.  Numerous legislative achievements reflected the sense of the Assembly, with an immense surge in boldly phrased resolutions on apartheid, racism, Portuguese colonialism, Southern Rhodesia, Israel abuses in the occupied territories, and the legitimacy of the combatants of the armed struggle.  The following year, this catalogue of resolutions would be joined by their logical conclusion: official recognition of the illegitimacy of South Africa’s delegation, and formal recognition of the National Liberation Movements as “the authentic” representatives. PLO leader Yasser Arafat addressed the UN Plenary that November, his holster famously visible – it was the capstone to an extraordinary year of militant Third World agitation.

However, the crowning achievement of the 1973 General Assembly had been the passage of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (ICSPA) a little over a week before Human Rights Day.  Sponsored by the Soviet Union, Sekou Toure’s Guinea, and Nigerian General Gowon’s military government, which had recently crushed all vestiges of Biafran secessionism, its articles were potent in their expression and implication.  The ICPSA was a radically different instrument to the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All-Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) – which outlawed apartheid and racism just as thoroughly, but in a framework that was mostly aligned with the principles of the Universal Declaration. In its narrowness of concept and application, the ICSPA was also a testament to the shift in anti-apartheid and anti-racist initiatives.  The draft text was promoted with arguments laden with provocation and accusation, as opposed to the seriousness of purpose and comparative avoidance of polemic which characterized earlier anti-racism advocates, like George Lamptey, the Ghanaian jurist who drove the 1965 convention forward.  Instead of approaching racism and apartheid as a gross abuse of individual human rights, its abhorrence and criminality was understood predominantly in collective terms.  Modelled as almost solely as a weapon against South Africa, its purpose was the prohibition of “domination by one racial groups of persons over any other racial groups of persons”, as opposed to the violation of individual rights carried out on a racialized basis.

With the ICSPA passed, and the Decade to Combat Racism already set to activate with no further required action, Human Rights Day was very nearly forgotten by the General Assembly.  In the afternoon session of 7 December 1973, the last day before the commemoration ceremony, William Schaufele Jr. (United States), was hopelessly entrapped in a propaganda initiative from Soviet Ambassador Adam Malik.  Schaufele proposed a deferral of debate, on blanket ten percent reduction in defence budgets – astronomic in the United States, and undeclared in the Soviet Union – to Monday 10 December. This would allow much more time for its consideration.  Bizarrely, it fell to Jamil , the Saudi Permanent Representative, and one of the most strident dissents to the original 1948 vote, to remind his colleagues that Monday was Human Rights Day, “a special occasion that should be observed”, and to advise that the commemorations and prize ceremony was already set.  It was, in fact, the reason their Friday meeting was in the Trusteeship Council room; the main chamber was being laid out for the public ceremonies on Monday.   He shared a moment of levity with the Netherlands representative, who appeared to assent to Schaufele’s deferral proposition insofar as the various legations might need more time for instructions.  Baroody quipped, astutely, that his Dutch colleague’s vote, like everyone else’s, was already easily predictable, as was the approximate content and phraseology of his explanatory speech – and that he was perhaps more worried about other events on Friday night.  “Come on, now; let us be frank”, he teased, “I like your smile, and I am laughing with you, my dear friend from the Netherlands.” Given that the meeting terminated shortly after 7pm, it seems probable that the Dutch representative made it to his engagements.  When Monday arrived, the celebration followed its pre-set channels, a set of platitudinous voyages through the assorted sequel resolutions, punctuated by moments where bitter and poignant reality intruded.  But only very rarely.

Dr. Roland Burke is a lecturer and ARC APD Fellow in History at La Trobe University. He is the author of Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).  At present, he is completing a manuscript on the intellectual history of arguments against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (provisionally titled, Human Rights in Eclipse).

Cite this blog post
burke (2014, February 25). Human Rights Day 1973: The “Liberation” of the Universal Declaration. Humanitarianism & Human Rights. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from

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