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Contextualizing the UDHR Master Narrative

Our idealized history of the foundng of UN human rights mechanisms includes a master narrative revering Eleanor Roosevelt for securing the rights in the UDHS. What happens to the master narrative when we contextualize it with the counter narrative of non hegemons?

Published onMay 06, 2023
Contextualizing the UDHR Master Narrative
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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)is considered the founding document of the mechanisms for human rights protection offered by the United Nations. As with other key Public International Law instruments, the drafting of the UDHR has been shrouded with tales of glory. These tales are part of the master narrative that lends credibility and cohesion to the international human rights machinery developed after World War 2. The international human rights mechanisms and the accompanying legal instruments are the subject of pedagogy in international human rights law courses across the globe.

Master narratives produce an idealized set of understandings about the how and why of a set of social practices or legal regimes. The narrative also excludes and renders invisible other understandings and histories related to the founding conditions under which a master narrative rises to power.

This blog post will explore the master narrative surrounding the drafting and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Important context related to the key actors and key figure in the drafting process - the United States of America and Eleanor Roosevelt is examined. Through images and cartoons with the words of Eleanor Roosevelt it constructs a counter narrative about the legal value of the UDHR in Public International Law. It will also employ disruptive text annotations to the UDHR preamble to further the counter narrative and lay bare the weaknesses of the text.

Shanelle Matthews on the Power of Counter Narratives

Shanelle Matthews (Movement for Black Lives): Narrative Change and Counter Narratives

Adopting Shanelle’s understandings, this piece finds the following points:

  • Narrative strategies preserve a social order. In Public International Law, this includes how rights and understood and how their violations should be addressed in the international order.

  • The counter narrative replaces the dominant narrative with inclusive, diverse stories and shifts understandings about human and other than human values.

Therefore, in the case of the founding of the UDHR, we must ask: what stories and understandings are left out?

Our project is to expose the antiquated understandings of the UDHR drafting process and its value.

ChatGPT knows the master narrative

As with all master narratives, they are embedded deep within society, including within the technology and informatics. Costanza-Chock, S. (2020).

Accordingly, I wanted to see how the UDHR is viewed from both a technological and pedagogical view. I employed OpenAI to see the view from technological standpoint and I consulted a frequently-used International Human Rights Law textbook to get the pedagogical perspective.

I tasked OpenAI, also known as ChatGPT, using the following prompt: You are writing a blog post about the universal declaration of human rights. Give the basic historical background for the UDHR.

The output is shown below.


Title: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Historic Milestone in Safeguarding Human Dignity
Introduction: In the aftermath of the devastating World War II, the world sought to establish a new global order founded on principles of peace, justice, and respect for human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, emerged as an extraordinary document that would forever reshape the course of human history. This blog post delves into the fundamental historical background that led to the creation of the UDHR and its enduring significance.
The Aftermath of World War II: The horrors of World War II, marked by genocidal acts and widespread violations of human rights, laid bare the urgent need for an international framework to prevent such atrocities from recurring. The Nuremberg Trials held to hold Nazi war criminals accountable further emphasized the need for a comprehensive human rights document to protect individuals from the excesses of state power.
The United Nations' Role: In 1945, amidst the ruins of war, representatives from 50 countries gathered in San Francisco to establish the United Nations (UN), an international organization dedicated to promoting peace and cooperation among nations. The UN Charter, signed during this historic meeting, articulated the organization's commitment to promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The Creation of the UDHR: To fulfill the promise of the UN Charter, the newly formed UN General Assembly established the Commission on Human Rights in 1946, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the former First Lady of the United States. This commission was tasked with drafting a global statement on human rights.
Consensus and Adoption: After two years of rigorous debates, negotiations, and revisions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948, with 48 member states voting in favor, and none opposing. This remarkable achievement demonstrated a rare consensus among nations, transcending geopolitical boundaries and affirming the shared aspiration for a world rooted in human dignity and equality.
Key Principles and Articles: The UDHR comprises 30 articles that establish a comprehensive framework for the protection of human rights. It encompasses civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, reflecting the belief that human rights are interdependent and indivisible. Some notable principles include the right to life, liberty, and security of person (Article 3); freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment (Article 5); the right to education (Article 26); and the right to participate in cultural life (Article 27).
Enduring Significance: The UDHR stands as a groundbreaking achievement in human history, setting a global standard for human rights. It has served as a foundation for subsequent international human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The principles enshrined in the UDHR continue to shape the development of national laws, policies, and judicial decisions worldwide, ensuring that the fundamental rights and freedoms of all individuals are respected and protected.
Conclusion: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged as a beacon of hope in the aftermath of the atrocities of World War II. Its drafting and adoption signify the global commitment to safeguarding human dignity, equality, and justice. As we reflect on its historic background, we are reminded of the enduring importance of the UDHR in [Editorial note: This was the abrupt end to the response].

The response generated here echoes what is found in standard narratives about the International Human Rights Law instruments (discussed below). Both narratives generally describe the signing of the UDHR as a watershed moment in human rights where all people’s rights are secured in the new world order.(Halme-Tuomisaari, 2015 p.331, 360)

The Textbooks in the field of International Human Rights Law

The ChatGPT response resonates with the International Law Textbooks used in introductory human rights law courses.

One such example is the textbook by Bantekas, etal, where the authors declare:1

The UDHR is the UN’s foundational human rights document and the cornerstone for the international human rights system, setting a framework for the understanding and content of rights that has stood the test of time.[…]The majority in the UN Commission on Human Rights, which had been established by ECOSOC in 1946 and had eighteen members at the time, opted for a declaration as a first step to agreeing on basic principles and as an educational tool. It was envisaged that the declaration would be followed by a covenant and measures of implementation to form an International Bill of Human Rights. The Commission tasked a committee of eight members from Australia, Chile, China, France, Lebanon, the USSR, the UK and the USA with drafting the UDHR, under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt. The process took two years, during which time the drafting committee consulted leading thinkers for their views on human rights. The draft articles were subject to intense scrutiny and sustained debates in the Commission, ECOSOC and the UN General Assembly (UNGA).45 Most states were in support of a universally shared set of principles. However, several objections were raised to the draft articles at the time. Communist countries in particular criticised the draft for not paying due regard to sovereignty, different stages of economic development and economic, social, cultural and collective rights. South Africa objected to racial equality because of its apartheid system and Saudi Arabia objected to the freedom to change one’s religion.
The UNGA adopted the UDHR on 10 December 1948 (that date was later declared International Human Rights Day). Forty-eight of the then fifty-eight member states of the UNGA voted in favour and eight states abstained (Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Union of South Africa, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Yugoslavia), with two members being absent. The individual provisions were also put to a vote. There was a remarkable degree of agreement, with unanimous votes for most rights, the only exceptions being the first recital of the preamble and articles 1, 2(2) (principle of non-distinction), 14 (right to asylum), 19 (freedom of expression), 20 (freedom of assembly and association), 27 (cultural life) and 29 (duties and limitations).

(Bantekas & Oette, 2020 p. 16-17. Emphasis added.)

The Master Narrative in a Nutshell

The master narrative has canonized the origins of the UDHR. The narrative

  • makes the UDHR the key source of the spectrum of rights assigned to humans around the globe;

  • legitimizes itself by pointing to the consultative process surrounding the drafting of the document;

  • venerates the key actors in the process and seals their legacy for the historical record.

In the human rights master narrative, the UDHR sits as the leading and sole authority for the substance of human rights. If a right cannot be envisaged within the 30 rights enumerated in the UDHR, it is not likely to be recognized in the global order. This is a type of canonization in which the UDHR will become the standard against which all attempt to become a right are measured. (See De Baets, 2009 for an historian's view)

The master narrative also describes the process of drafting the UDHR as a wide consultation with a diversity of (female) figures, allowing it to self-identify as liberal and progressive, open-minded and expansive. In many ways, this is a backward-looking attempt to validate a process because it seeks to show equality of the female figure as a key object of the UDHR in a time when such rights were not part of the global project.

Finally, the UDHR drafters are depicted as a instrumental figures in shaping the liberality of the instrument, in particular, Eleanor Roosevelt. The Bantekas textbook states “It is well known that even the meagre human rights provisions in the Charter were the result of the determined efforts by human rights lobbyists and Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the then United States (US) president.” (Bantekas & Oette, 2020 p. 158) The ChatGPT response printed above also references Roosevelt for her involvement in the UDPR drafting process. The renewed Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) website has web pages dedicated to the travaux préparatoires for the UDHR in which Roosevelt (rightfully) figures prominently. The site has a photo carrousel showing the diversity of the drafting committee. The website serves functionally as the place where the public gets information about the international human rights instruments and complaints mechanisms. Yet it is also a narrative builder and keeper with ever evolving ways of framing the drafting process so as to lend to its legitimacy.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights as explained by OHCHR

Countering the Master Narrative

Christine Stanley emphasizes that counter narratives “deconstruct the master narrative. […] They provide, for example, multiple and conflicting models of understanding social and cultural identities.” (Stanley, 2007 p.14) Stanley’s scholarship involved the editorial process of academic journals. Those findings are equally valid for the narrative born from discourse in classrooms and on websites.

But how do you produce the counter narrative? How can you ensure that distinct perspectives are made visible and available as frameworks and ways of understanding the UDHR and its pertinence to the respect and protection of human rights?

Neo Muyanga, a South African sound artist, took the music and text for the song “Amazing Grace” and gave it a decolonized meaning by way of a “disrupted score” (8:14) in his exhibition “A Maze in Grace.” (Muyanga, 2020) Muyanga’s project is inspirational in its quest to take a colonial setting and infuse it with meaning from the descendants of those who were meant to be colonized. His reference to “disrupted score” resonates with my own annotation of written human rights texts.

#34bienal A Maze in Grace featuring Neo Muyanga

Counter Narratives of the Non hegemonic as Methodology

The UDHR process is officially available on the UN website, as noted earlier. The dissonance between the written minutes of the UN account of the drafting and the early discussions on what the role of the UN Commission for Human Rights was to be and what is described in human rights textbooks has been explored elsewhere in my scholarship. (Lewis Arredondo, 2022) In those earlier social media posts, I review the minutes from the early UN Commission for Human Rights (Commission) and the debates held regarding the role of the Commission and note that the harmonic language about the UDHR and the protection of human rights are misplaced and misleading.

Inspired from the work of Stanley, Muyanga and this author’s previous engagement with the founding moments of the human rights machinery, this article examines the words of Eleanor Roosevelt in her newspaper column, “My Day,” a column which was nationally sydicated and ran from 31 December 1935 until 26 September 1962. It is archived by The Eleanor Roosevelt Paper Project of The George Washington University and available online. By the project’s own account, the My Day archive provides the only consistent record of Roosevelt’s public actions.

I searched “My Day” using the Google search engine provided on the site. Employing simple names, words and phrases, including “DuBois,” “Negro,” “genocide” and “federal-state clause,” I was able to find two My Day columns with discussions about the UDHR drafting process.

Constructing the Counter Narrative

The counter narrative arises within the context of the non hegemonic peoples; that is to say, the Black American population, which at the time (and even up until today!!) were segregated socially, economically, and educationally from white citizens. This group would knock on the door of the UN to try to have their needs addressed, but to no avail. (Anderson, 2003) The Black population in the US had hoped to have lynching and other state violence addressed by the UN or the Commission and Roosevelt, as chairperson of the Commission had been the likely figure for them to approach. Scholar Carol Anderson skillfully illustrates the folly of their expectations in her book Eyes Off the Prize; The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944–1955. On the two occasions where W.EB. DuBois and Paul Robeson, along with William Patterson and other prominent Blacks would attempt to petition the UN about the ill treatment of Blacks, they were blocked and rebuffed, their petitions never entertained within the body.

Both the official record and Roosevelt’s My Day columns depict a woman who was embroiled in the political, social and economic concerns of the day - namely, the need for the United States to contain both the U.S.S.R. and its communist agenda and the potential of scandal regarding the violent repression of Black Americans (referred to in that time as “Negroes”). Roosevelt references a number of encounters with prominent Black Americans, including W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson. She worked to block the petition to address the genocide of Blacks occuring on US soil. Her reasoning is similar to the rationale she would employ for refusing to allow individual petitions in the UN Commission for Human Rights — this was an internal matter and such petitions would bring shame to the countries involved.

This strident Eleanor Roosevelt, seeking to protect US reputational interests was also coupled with a decided anti-communist approach that was distrustful of the U.S.S.R. and any person associated with the Communist groups in the United States, which included some Black Americans such as Du Bois and Robeson.

The cartoon slideshow below takes Roosevelt’s own words from her My Day columns to show how she viewed the legal authority of the UDHR. They are cartoons with a retro design remind us how women may have been portrayed in newspapers comic sections of the day. They are also placing the words beside images of Roosevelt in her position at the UN. The words are taken away from their original target audience and juxtaposed with the standards that the UDHR was supposed to uphold. (Alternative: view on YouTube.)

Eleanor Roosevelt on UDHR in her words.

The UDHR was set up to ensure that no colonial power would ever have its authority and reputation questioned by the citizens and residents of its own territory. The declaration had no binding authority and thus no mechanism for bringing a case against one’s own government. It was non-binding and had no legal force, in Roosevelt’s words.

Disrupt the Text: The UDHR annotated- a decolonized reading

In many ways, the master narrative is telling of its own weaknesses. That the UDHR was NOT a broadly consulted document is closer to the truth. That it was a closely held moment where only a few privileged persons took part is evident in all of the documentation. The text belies the words of the master account. It struggles with empire, humanity, gender and many other constructs.

One way to powerfully address these failings is to annotate the text physically, as done with Amazing Grace by Muyanga. To literally mark up the text and make its shortcomings visible. But also make known what is needed now in 2023, decades after the text.

The marked up text below is just one effort to engage the UDHR text and to lay bare its failings. The object of such a project is to begin a new dialogue. To infuse the meaning rendered invisible by coloniality and the people who sought so fervently to protect it.

I have taken the preamble of the UDHR and literally marked it up, struck out words and phrases, added dialogues and placed question marks to inspire doubt. The text is often described as “aspirational” meaning it is not to be understood as a duty, but only something to hope to one day accomplish. This is especially said of the parts of the UDHR that relate to economic, social and cultural rights.

The non hegemonic groups want to challenge aspiration. The groups wonder why their rights are not worthy of immediate enforcement. So, the markup shows that the text does not address the non human or other than human. It has rendered nature and the environment invisible in its preamble. Where is the broad consultation if only a small part of the planet is concerned? The text struggles with gender and ultimately makes it binary. It also fails to view solidarity of peoples as a desirable way of living in community. The focus is on the individual.

Enlarge and study the image below. How would you mark up the preamble? Does the exercise itself lend to more empowerment? Are you able to let go of the socialization that says this text is sacred? Can you imagine it otherwise?

UDHR preamble disrupted

References

Anderson, C. (2003). Eyes off the prize: the United Nations and the African American struggle for human rights, 1944-1955. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bantekas, I., & Oette, L. (2020). International human rights law and practice.

Costanza-Chock, S. (2020). Introduction: #TravelingWhileTrans, Design Justice, and Escape from the Matrix of Domination. In Design Justice (1st ed.). Retrieved from https://designjustice.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/ap8rgw5e

De Baets, A. (2009). The Impact of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” on the Study of History. History and Theory, 48(1), 20–43. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/25478812

Halme-Tuomisaari, M. (2015). Lobbying for relevance: American internationalists, French civil libertarians and the UDHR. In P. Slotte & M. Halme-Tuomisaari (Eds.), Revisiting the Origins of Human Rights (1st ed., pp. 330–361). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781316228074.015

Lewis Arredondo, T. N. (2022, October 29). When the Textbook Misleads. Retrieved May 6, 2023, from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/when-textbook-misleads-tamara-lewis-ceds

Muyanga, N. (2020). #34bienal A Maze in Grace. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-lPRRmizx6g

Stanley, C. A. (2007). When Counter Narratives Meet Master Narratives in the Journal Editorial-Review Process. Educational Researcher, 36(1), 14–24. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X06298008

Further Reading

Nadar, S. (2014). “Stories are data with Soul” – lessons from black feminist epistemology. Agenda, 28(1), 18–28. https://doi.org/10.1080/10130950.2014.871838

Portelli, A. (2009). What Makes Oral History Different. In L. D. Giudice (Ed.), Oral History, Oral Culture, and Italian Americans (pp. 21–30). New York: Palgrave Macmillan US. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230101395_2

Stern, S. J., & Straus, S. (Eds.). (2014). The human rights paradox: universality and its discontents. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.

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