A Universal commitment

The people of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Published: February 23, 2021

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UN Photo Library, 126485

Story text

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was the result of an extensive process involving the contributions of many people and perspectives.

In light of the devastation brought about by the Second World War, these people were motivated by a need to articulate the rights to which all people are entitled. They envisioned a world where a global commitment to human rights would offer protection against such atrocities in the future. This page presents some of the people whose contributions helped to shape the development of the UDHR.

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H.G. Wells (1866-1946)
Photo: Corbis, Hulton-Deutsch Collection, photograph by Maurice Beckl

Sometimes, you have to step outside of the person you've been and remember the person you were meant to be. The person you want to be. The person you are.

H.G. Wells

The story of the UDHR begins in 1939, with British author H.G. Wells. Today, Wells is best known as a science fiction writer. He wrote futuristic novels such as War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. He also helped build momentum for a universal vision of human rights.

At the beginning of the Second World War, Wells wrote a letter to the editor to the London Times. He asked, “What are we fighting for?” and attached a declaration of rights to his letter. He hoped this declaration could unite and inspire people in the face of injustice. He saw that war drove people into exile, creating conditions of enormous stress, distrust and hostility. His declaration set out the human rights that he thought should be accessible to everyone.

The final version of Wells’ declaration was published as a book, called The Rights of Man, or What are we fighting for? Although Wells died in 1946, his ideas greatly influenced the committee of people who would eventually draft the UDHR.

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Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945)
Photo: Associated Press

Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

On January 6, 1941, Americans turned on their radios to hear United States President Franklin Roosevelt give a landmark speech. Roosevelt outlined four fundamental freedoms that everyone in the world ought to be able to enjoy. In the months after his speech, calls for an international charter of rights and freedoms grew stronger.

The “Four Freedoms” speech identified:

  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of worship
  • Freedom from fear
  • Freedom from want

At the time, the United States had not yet entered the Second World War. Roosevelt emphasized the importance of democracy and individual freedoms as a way to encourage citizens to support the Allied war efforts against Nazi Germany. Roosevelt contrasted an ideal world founded upon the four essential freedoms with the “new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create.” Eleven months later came the attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered the war.

In 1948, in the aftermath of the unimaginable human cost of the Second World War, the committee drafting the UDHR returned to these four freedoms, including nearly an identical version in the document’s preamble.

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Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
Photo: © Yousuf Karsh

At all times, day by day, we have to continue fighting for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom from want — for these are things that must be gained in peace as well as in war.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived at the White House in 1933 as First Lady and President. By that time, Eleanor Roosevelt had already built a reputation as a person who fought for justice. As First Lady, she continued to use her voice to advocate on behalf of women’s rights and civil rights.

In 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt died and Harry Truman became President of the United States. In 1946, President Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt as a U.S. representative to the United Nations. One year later, when the United Nations Commission on Human Rights was established, Roosevelt was elected chairperson. The first meeting of the Commission took place at Lake Success, New York in January 1947. Plans for the UDHR began to take shape at this first meeting. Upon its completion, Roosevelt called it the “Magna Carta” of humankind.

After the adoption of the UDHR, Roosevelt continued to promote acceptance and implementation of the rights outlined in the declaration. Today, she is considered the driving force behind its creation.

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Peng-Chun Chang (1892-1957)
Photo: UN Photo Library

Peng‐Chun Chang was well known as a playwright, poet and Confucian philosopher. He was also a distinguished diplomat and was a delegate from China to the United Nations. In 1947, he was elected vice‐chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. He provided leadership in the drafting of the UDHR, helping to resolve disputes by appealing to Confucian ideals. For Chang, respect for others was central to realizing human rights. He saw the need to balance individual rights with duty to the community, a fundamental principle of Confucian philosophy. His understanding of human rights included social, economic, civil and political rights.

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John Peters Humphrey (1905-1995)
Photo: UN Photo Library, photograph by K.B., 324084

If there is to be perpetual peace in a world of nation states, the individuals who live in them must be free, their human rights must be respected.

John Peters Humphrey

A Canadian named John Peters Humphrey hand wrote the first draft of the UDHR. Humphrey grew up in Hampton, New Brunswick, in the early 1900s. When he was about six years old, he had an arm amputated following an accident and became the target of bullies. His determination and resilience helped him through this difficult time and later, helped him deal with the death of his parents at a young age. Humphrey went on to become a lawyer, Dean of Law at McGill University and then Director of the Human Rights Division at the United Nations in New York.

Audio clip: John Peters Humphrey: Overcoming a physical disability

Audio caption for John Peters Humphrey: Overcoming a physical disability

Looking back on his childhood, John Peters Humphrey speaks about his early challenges and overcoming a physical disability.

In 1947, a small group chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt gathered to draft a new international bill of rights. The group agreed that Humphrey would prepare the preliminary draft. Many nations and non‐governmental groups had already contributed ideas. The drafting committee's role was to bring together the ideals of diverse cultures and the interests of different nations into a document that the member states of the United Nations could agree upon.

Audio clip: Every article is debated

Audio caption for Every article is debated

Members of the UN debated every article of the Declaration, arguing from different philosophical and political perspectives. John Peters Humphrey discusses the changes that were made to his original draft in this process.

Humphrey’s draft was the first step on a two‐year journey to the final version. On December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the UDHR.

For the remainder of his life, Humphrey devoted himself to advancing the cause of human rights. The historic document he helped create ushered in a global revolution for human rights.

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The best tribute that we could pay to a person such as John Humphrey is to dedicate ourselves to the eradication of poverty, hunger, violence and insecurity wherever in the world these occur.

Nelson Mandela

Photo: Courtesy of Guy and Martha Humphrey

Dive deeper

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

This world‐famous declaration is celebrated each year on International Human Rights Day.

A person woman-presenting holds a large piece of paper covered with text and a large title reading "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

Suggested citation

Suggested citation : . “A Universal commitment.” Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Published February 23, 2021. https://humanrights.ca/story/universal-commitment