Disclaimer: This is an example of a student written essay.
Click here for sample essays written by our professional writers.

Information contained within this essay does not constitute legal advice or guidance and is intended for educational purposes only.

Origins of Human Rights

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Human Rights
Wordcount: 2767 words Published: 2nd Oct 2017

Reference this

Write an essay explaining the origins of a particular human rights text, institution, movement or organisation; The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The UDHR was a very brief and inspirational text that many students understand as a strict cornerstone for any international documents of human rights. Created following the UN charter, it enshrined the four basic freedoms adopted in World War II; Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Fear and Freedom from want. This essay will explain the origins of the UDHR in terms of the events of World War II and its participants, especially circling around both the events of the Holocaust and the Atomic Bomb. This will be to show that the UDHR draws directly from these events as its origin and why it was necessary in place of the already-existing UN charter. This essay will be scoping the areas around the individuals of World War II, the basic allied freedoms and the UN charter, to the use of the Atomic Bomb in 1945 and the creation of the Declaration of Human Rights on the 10th of December in 1948. Appropriately, to answer the origins of the UDHR, this essay will begin by examining its precursor, the Charter of the UN and the four freedoms of the allied forces. The United States and Nazi Germany, in particular their war crimes, will also examined in regard to their treatment of the minority, namely the Jews, other Europeans and women. The origins of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are very clearly linked with the development and use of the Atomic bomb which, rather than targeting a single individual, would be able to annihilate nations of varying ethnicity or religion. This newly developed fear and concern out classified the UN charter which was deemed insufficient in defining the rights all humans own and lead to this development.

Get Help With Your Essay

If you need assistance with writing your essay, our professional essay writing service is here to help!

Essay Writing Service

The Origins of the UDHR can be started by looking at both the League of Nations and the Charter of the UN before it. The league itself was a radical departure from what had previously been done in the work of human rights beforehand, however it was not without its own issues: Mazower comments on how “A Japanese proposal that the League commit itself to racial equality was unceremoniously and improperly blocked by the major Powers, despite the support it had attracted from other states”. [1]Further topics of making the minority rights universal rather than aimed towards the new states of Eastern Europe were also disregarded each time they were brought forward. The League of Nations were not given the authority to express its opinion as undeniably true in terms of topics such as racial segregation in the US or English treatment of the Catholics. This in turn didn’t impact Germany either and would cause issues further on as there was nothing that the league could do in order to speak out against the Nazi’s treatment of the Jewish people.

The United Nations charter failed in this regard, as well as in several others that lead towards the creation of the UDHR in its place. Historian Mary Ann Glendon notes that any the addition of human rights references to the Charter might encourage stronger states to intervene in their affairs under pretext of championing the rights of their citizens, as Hitler had done in Czechoslovakia. On the other hand, many tyrants including Hitler had hidden behind the bulwark of national sovereignty, seemingly protected in the Charter as well. [2]The vague domestic-jurisdiction language of the charter did not do much in order to remedy these issues. By 1940 the League and its attempts at guaranteeing the rights of minorities in Eastern Europe had been seen as a failure and the powers holding them had all but ended. This was particularly true in the case of 1933 with Germany and the Third Reich’s use of Ethnic German groups as a way to undermine the Versailles settlement. This in turn proved to be good enough for many European politicians to argue that a new perspective and method were necessary.

The Great Powers supported this because they thereby escaped the specific commitments which the previous arrangements had imposed on them, and which Russian control over post-war eastern Europe rendered no longer practicable. But they also supported it because the new rights regime had no binding legal force.[3]

An immense factor in the origins of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights leads us to the United States. Their part in the United Nations charter marked an immense turning point, as without their support it would be extremely unlikely that human rights would have been as prominent as it was within the charter itself. Glendon holds this precisely to the point where the United States made a “a single exception to its opposition to the naming of special commissions in the Charter: It would agree to a Human Rights Commission.” [4]To this the Soviet Union did not object with the belief that the UN charter would stop any UN interference with most domestic events. As World War II continued, the American public came to believe that isolating themselves would no longer be an effective countermeasure against the threats in Europe. Mazower agrees and states that President Roosevelt’s State of Union speech of 1941 highlighted the idea of universal and international human rights quoting, in particular, “the supremacy of human rights everywhere”[5]. It was individuals and speeches like Roosevelt’s that many argue were the turning point of human rights as mentioned before. Along with the Americans came British support. The British required American support throughout the war effort and to make sure they retained an allied status after it. The British had a great deal more of an issue when it came to the topic of Human Rights in comparison to the Americans as can even be seen in the American constitution. Mazower notes that there was commentary by the British that colonies be exempt from these rights and that it should be based for Europe alone, but the danger of losing US support would be too great and that ‘Learning to live with human rights might be a necessary evil’[6]

Both the brief introduction to Nazi Germany and the US’s involvement in the U.N. Charter has been argued in a couple of ways by historians. Mazower suggests that there are two ways to look at this next part to the origin of the declaration of Human Rights; a way in which we can say that a reason for the states coming together under the United nations to defend these human rights. These are dubbed the “Eleanor Roosevelt’ and the ‘Adolf Hitler’ version by Mazower. [7]To explore the Eleanor Roosevelt version, we will take both the opinions of the aforementioned Mazower and Glendon into account. This is to refer to the event happening due to particular heroic individuals who brought change around due to their efforts and unrelenting faith in the cause of human rights and impacting the powers and forcing them into action. The first individual this essay will mention in this regard is Rene Cassin. Rene Cassin came from a Jewish family in the South West of France of which twenty six members were killed during the holocaust. He witnessed, as Jay Winter described in his lecture at Monash University, the “wholesale dismantling and humiliation of his nation”. [8]Coming from a background in war to eventually winning the Nobel Peace Prize of 1968, this example of the individual shows a more pacifist response as a reaction to the catastrophe and standing with human rights in stark contrast to absolute state sovereignty. It was Rene Cassin who wrote up the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

On the other side, the ‘Adolf Hitler’ version, it is argued that the actions of Nazi Germany and the atrocities committed on their end which stamped over all semblances of human rights caused a counter-movement through the world. This brings us to the holocaust. Jay Winter describes the events of 1948, after the actions of the Nazi’s, resulting in the talking of human rights to almost ‘be a paradox’. Mazower agrees with this statement, saying that the most significant thing about the entire situation “is not the fact that heroic individuals made a difference but rather that international human rights turned out – rather unusually – to be an area of post-war politics in which individuals on the fringes of political life found they had a certain scope for action”[9]. The Nazi’s themselves had a clearly large role in the sudden rise of discussions of human rights. They did not see individual rights in great light and openly looked down upon them from their nationalist position. This was in clear contrast to both the American and the British democrats who opposed the fascist regime and attempting to enforce individual rights against the powerful Nazi state seemed to go side by side with it and seemed especially urgent to those people who felt that the war had started because of the inherent bellicosity of dictatorships[10].

It is also often argued that the Holocaust was much less central to perceptions of what the war was in 1945 than it is in the modern day. This is understandable as it came be seen how any of the atrocities committed by the Nazi’s could be interpreted as a link towards the origins of the UDHR yet still not necessarily be referenced to as just the Germanic Jews but as a crime against anyone who was wronged by the regime. Samuel Moyn also debates this in arguing that the holocaust was also unmentioned and that “Contrary to conventional assumptions, there was no wide-spread holocaust consciousness in the post-war era, so human rights could not have been a response to it”[11]. Looking at Duranti’s The Holocaust and Human Rights Law gives a few more examples in favour of the theory, such as Bill Clinton’s address in April 1993 stating a direct rise of the UDHR due to the holocaust and quoting ‘The Amnesty International Handbook’ which states almost the same thing[12].

The lessons of the holocaust were rather clear however; after the events a wider populace came to realise that the Nazi’s rise to power, Germany’s rapid expansion in nationalism and the treatment of the German Jew’s showed that the state could not be left in supreme control and that the rights must be defended and judged internationally. Mazower comments on the statement of Quincy Wright, a political theorist, who observed that ‘it was a general principle that a State was free to persecute its own nationals in its own territory as it saw fit’, yet stressed that an ‘effective international organisation is not possible unless it protects basic human rights against encroachment by national States’[13]

-The Universal Declaration charted a bold new course for human rights by presenting a vision of freedom as linked to social security, balanced by responsibilities, grounded in respect for equal human dignity, and guarded by the rule of law. That vision was meant to protect liberty from degenerating into license and to repel the excesses of individualism and collectivism alike. By affirming that all its rights belong to everyone, everywhere, it aimed to put an end to the idea that a nation’s treatment of its own citizens or subjects was immune from outside scrutiny.

-Its nonbinding principles, carried far and wide by activists and modem communications, have vaulted over the political and legal barriers that impede efforts to establish international enforcement mechanisms… The Declaration’s principles, moreover, have increasingly acquired legal force, mainly through their incorporation into national legal systems.


Finally, the Atomic bomb and its development and use brought greater questions forward. Dropped on the 7th of August 1945 with the declaration being made on the 10th of December 1948, the atomic bomb, rather than targeting an individual of a particular religion or ethnicity, could target entire nations and pose a threat. Examples of the bombs influence can be seen even in the creation of the UDHR;

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.[14]

Article 27 puts particular emphasis on a human beings right to participate in culture. The Atomic bomb had given the United States a substaintial lead in terms of the Cold War and piqued much interest from their soviet counterparts which advocated to use science in a very progressive, democratic and peaceful purposes and had many propositions towards how, as Johannes Morsink quotes “the development of science must serve in the interests of progress and democracy and the cause of international peace and cooperation”[15].

The Origins of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have many problems associated with creating a link between any massive events or given source, which has caused some debate on the topic. Several historians such as Winter, Duranti, Glendon, Moyn and Mazower all give somewhat distinctive approaches to what truly connects the Declaration with its supposed factors, such as certain individuals like Eleanor Roosevelt and Rene Cassin, The influence of the Great Powers, The Holocaust and Nazi Germany’s crimes and the use of the Atomic bomb. To observe the origins the Charter of the United Nations and the League of Nations were also observed as a precursor to the declaration, as well as why the system failed and had to be renovated in order to main

[1] Mark Mazower Page 382

[2] Mary Ann Glendon A World Made New page 20

[3] THE STRANGE TRIUMPH OF HUMAN RIGHTS, 1933–1950* MARK MAZOWER Birkbeck College, London page 1

[4] Mary Ann Glendon A world made new page 17

[5] THE STRANGE TRIUMPH OF HUMAN RIGHTS, 1933–1950* MARK MAZOWER Birkbeck College, London page 387

[6] THE STRANGE TRIUMPH OF HUMAN RIGHTS, 1933–1950* MARK MAZOWER Birkbeck College, London page 387

[7] THE STRANGE TRIUMPH OF HUMAN RIGHTS, 1933–1950* MARK MAZOWER Birkbeck College, London page 380

[8] Jay Winter

[9] THE STRANGE TRIUMPH OF HUMAN RIGHTS, 1933–1950* MARK MAZOWER Birkbeck College, London page 381

[10] THE STRANGE TRIUMPH OF HUMAN RIGHTS, 1933–1950* MARK MAZOWER Birkbeck College, London page 386

[11] Samuel Moyn

[12] Marco Duranti, The holocaust and Human Rights Law, page 163

[13] THE STRANGE TRIUMPH OF HUMAN RIGHTS, 1933–1950* MARK MAZOWER Birkbeck College, London page 385

[14] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

[15] Johannes Morsink The Universal Declaration of Human Rights : Origins and Intent


Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Services

View all

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have your work published on UKEssays.com then please: