It was past midnight December 10, 1948, in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations, in the Palais de Chaillot, place du Trocadero in Paris. The President 's tired voice pattered in the microphone: “52 in favor, none against, 8 abstentions. Adopted “(the U.N. had only 60 members then). The rasping of his gavel was covered by a burst of applause, mainly in the public and press areas. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) had just been approved.
Except for the United States and a few other Western countries, junior diplomats occupied the seats assigned to their countries. Indeed, due to the late hour and the starting week-end, top delegates had already left the city. Actually, many among them considered the Declaration as a mere idealistic fancy destined to rejoin numerous other United Nations’ resolutions on the shelves of impractical figments of idealistic imaginations.
As a consequence, I, a mere “secretary” on the official list of delegates, cast the affirmative vote for Iran. I dutifully remained in my seat, listening to a spate of congratulatory speeches and a few explanations of vote by the “abstaining” representatives of Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the Soviet Bloc.
My involvement in this process was rather due to chance than to competence and expertise. It is true that I had earned a doctorate in law cum laude from the Sorbonne in June 1948 and had followed a course on the history and philosophy of human rights in Paris University in 1947. But at age 23, I had no practical experience except for a stint as an attaché to the Iranian Embassy since march 1947.
In May 1948 the Ambassador Anouchirvan Sepahbody was replaced by a former Prime Minister Ali Soheyli who changed the whole staff in order to bring in his minions. I therefore was recalled to the Foreign Ministry after less than a year in Paris. To put it mildly, the prospect of returning to my country’s medieval society seemed rather unattractive to me. I tried to find a job on the French market. But in those days, youth was far from being an asset as it is now.
I was musing about migrating to the “land of opportunities” when our Ambassador to the UN Nassrollah Entezam asked the Foreign Minister to include me as a secretary in the Iranian delegation to the third session of the UN General Assembly (September to end of December 1948) which would meet in Paris at the invitation of the French Government.
Entezam needed an aide well versed in the French language capable of taking care of his foreign correspondence and his speech writing (French was his main foreign language). He argued with Tehran that as I was already in France, the Foreign Ministry would thus save travel expenses! I welcomed his initiative because it allowed me to prolong my stay in the “City of Light”.
But I couldn’t imagine at the time that this assignment would determine the course of my incipient career and trigger a long involvement with the UN and its specialized Agencies both on the secretariat and governmental sides. In a way the UDHR sealed my professional fate .
In order to accommodate the world organization, the French had added two provisional wings to the Palais de Chaillot. While under constructio , the two clear-blue (UN color) wooden structures stirred passionate debates among the public. Some expressed the view that these extensions disgraced the beauty of the original twin buildings. Half a century earlier, their parents had protested against the “ugly” steel assemblage of the Eiffel Tower!
But as it always happens, once erected ,people got used to them and even suggested their preservation (actually they remained in place until 1952, after Paris hosted for a second time the General Assembly in the fall of 1951).
I spent a whole day before the opening of the session looking around inside the Palais de Chaillot in order to get my bearings. This thorough casing helped me in finding quickly and easily my way in the labyrinthic corridors to the meeting rooms and secretariat offices where my superiors would send me to transmit messages and fetch documents.
In addition to my duties with our ambassador to the UN, I also was appointed as secretary to our representative to the Third Committee which had to finalize the draft of the UDHR . Our man there was Dr Raadi , the Iranian Ambassador to UN Educational, Scientific and and Cultural Organization, Uesco, who asked me to carefully study the draft document.
It did not take me long to find out that almost all the articles in the proposed UDHR contradicted laws and practices in Iran and, for that matter, all other Muslim countries. I wrote a report that Dr Raadi tabled at one of the staff meetings presided by the Foreign Minister Movafagh-os-Saltaneh Esfandiary. A cursory discussion took place and as lunch time approached, the minister said that he would later issue instructions about Iran’s position.
Immediately after the opening of the General Assembly session, the director of the secretariat’s Public Information Department came to our office near the Palais de Chaillot and asked our deputy permanent representative to the UN, Dr Khosrow Khosrovani, to suggest a candidate for the daily broadcast in Persian. With Entezam’s approval, I was offered the job. Thus every day at 1 pm I gave a five minutes talk in my native language in which I summarized the ongoing events in the General Assembly.
As I had been without salary for almost three months, this windfall source of money enchanted me. But the minister instructed the delegation’s accountant Amir Khosrow Afshar to remove me from the list of salaries. I complained to Ambassador Entezam. He told me not to worry.
At the next Luncheon-staff-meeting he mentioned my plight. The minister said: “Hoveyda is paid by the UN”. Entezam retorted with a story: “There was a civil servant who was gay. Those who had sex with him would offer him gifts. Now do you think our government should withhold this man's wages?” Everybody at the table burst into laughter and the minister ordered the accountant to restore my name on the list!
After the conclusion of the “general debate” (a series of longwinded platitudes uttered by heads of delegations, repeating what everybody already knew by reading the newspapers) I spent more time in the Third Committee, sitting behind our delegate.
But in early October, Dr Raadi left for Beirut in order to attend the General Conference of Unesco, his organization. In those days Iran was far from being a rich country despite its underground resources (its oil , for instance, was exploited by the British against a ridiculously low royalty which was mostly stolen by corrupt politicians in cahoot with them). The Foreign ministry could not afford to appoint another man. So I practically became Iran’s surrogate representative in the Humanitarian and Social Committee (the official title of the Third Committee).
MRS ROOSEVELT AND AMBASSADOR PAVLOV
Of course the most important item on the agenda was the draft Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the authors and passionate defenders of the draft, represented the United States. I had seen her in press photos and in newsreels for years. She was never considered an attractive woman. Looking at her for the first time in the flesh, so to say, shocked me. She reminded me of a worn-out hack, especially when a laugh showed her big teeth. I condoned in petto the late President’s indiscretion with his secretary which some press gossips had recently revealed.
Yet as days passed and Mrs Roosevelt spoke in the Committee, her face would glow with candor and her eyes sparkle with convincing ardor, somehow transforming her into a fine looking dowager. She definitely believed in what she was saying. Indeed she had been instrumental in the drafting of the Declaration in the Geneva sessions of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights. Actually she considered the draft as her “baby” and defended it with force and sometime vigor!
The Soviet delegate, a middle-aged man with a pepper-and-salt beard that descended almost to his waist was Moscow’s Ambassador to Paris. His name was Pavlov, but no relation whatsoever to his famous namesake. Yet some people bestowed on him the title of “Professor” because he had taught International Law before shifting to diplomacy. Contrary to other communist representatives who were usually stern and avaricious of words, Pavlov was jocund and outspoken. He rarely read written speeches and prefered extempore ones, studded with anecdotes and jokes. He unabashedly mingled with other delegates, even the most well known anti-communists.
Mrs Roosevelt was almost always the first in the Committee room and Pavlov would go to her and shake hands. Yet he never missed an opportunity to citicize the Declaration. For him it reflected “bourgeois-capitalistic” values and failed to ensure the real rights of the masses in general and the working class in particular.
Saudi Arabia also considered the Declaration unacceptable in as much as it upheld “Western values” that contradicted sometimes Koranic commandments and the sharia (Islamic law). Curiously enough, its delegate Jamil Baroody was of Christian Lebanese descent and long established in New York. He allegedly managed in Wall Street the portfolios of several Saudi princes, including Faisal who would become king in the late fifties.
Like Pavlov (whom he despised for his atheistic marxist philosophy), Baroody also speckled his speeches with humorous details and funny anecdotes. He often, in the middle of a speech, recited Koranic verses in Arabic and translated them into English for the benefit of his colleagues. Though carrying the title of Ambassador, he was ranked as Deputy Permanent representative of Saudi Arabia (probably because of his Christian origin) but there were nobody above him on the list of diplomats.
Other Arabs attributed his outspokenness to the fact that Saudis were new at international diplomacy and trusted their man in New York. In the case of Pavlov the reason invoked was vey different: according to rumors he was a “natural” son of Lenin from one of his mistresses and therefore enjoyed a great amount of leeway.
Baroody’s criticism of the Declaration focused mainly on the articles concerning slavery (a form of which was practiced in Saudi Arabia and some other parts of the Muslim world) and equality for women (which contradicted a number of verses in the Koran). He, as well as other Arab delegates, also opposed political rights and freedom of thought and conscience. But criticism of the latter was aired only in private. In the Committee they kept silent and followed the West in the voting.
Indeed the Arab governments needed Washington's backing and the protection. Moreover, at the time, Americans dominated the United Nations. It is only in the late sixties that the swelling membership allowed the so-called Third World to manifest its existence and try to balance the influence of the two super-powers.
As to South Africa, its motives were obvious: the Declaration was in absolute contradiction with the policy of “apartheid”. The Arabs would have welcomed the postponement of the whole issue as demanded by the Soviets who wanted a re-reading of the text of the drsft by the Commission on Human Rights. But their governments could not separate themselves from Washington and Mrs Roosevelt insisted on the rapid adoption of the Declaration at the current session of the General Assembly.
The Soviets and their satellites resorted to a tactic I dubbed “verbal dysentery”: they would multiply their screeds and present congeries of amendments and sub-amendments to each sentence and even word . Meetings were dragging and the Committee fell dangerously behind schedule. The Chairman, Charles Malik, a Lebanese professor of Philosophy at the American University of Beirut, instituted night meetings in order to speed up the process and catch up. I was not pleased as this imposed additional hours (without pay) and dramatically limited my free time.
HOW I BECAME INVOLVED IN DRAFTING THE DECLARATION
A cursory reading of the draft Declaration had convinced me of the difficulty, if not impossibility, for the Iranian government to implement most of its articles. I repeated my findings at one of the staff meetings headed by the Foreign Minister Esfandiary.
The bigwigs superficially discussed my report for a short moment. To them as the Declaration was a mere recommandation and not a binding “convention”, the whole matter was unimportant. The Declaration included in a resolution, simply set “goals” to be reached without specification of time-table.
The American Ambassador in Tehran had transmitted a message from President Truman asking Iran to support the Declaration. The minister added that we badly needed a financial support from the United States and even protection against Russian expansionism. He instructed me to stand aloof of the discussions, keep completely silent and follow for voting the American delegate.
Despite my observance of the minister’s orders, I, nevertheless found myself by a quirk of fate actively involved in the finalization of the text. I found out that Professor René Cassin (the future Nobelist) who taught a course on Human Rights and had joined general de Gaulle during Wold War II, represented France in the Third Committee. He knew me from law school and looked at me with astonishment : “What are you doing here?”
After I explained my situation and my instructions, he laughed and said: “That’s perfect! You’ll be all the more able to help us behind the scenes! And god knows that we need all the help we can enlist.” He cooperated closely with Mrs Roosevelt in order to speed up the discussions and avoid too many changes in the draft. He asked me to work with others in order to merge or revise the numerous amendments and expunge from them all insidious attempts to water down the meaning of the rights.
Cassin had set up a kind of small private non-official working group. He used to invite the French speaking authors of proposals and talk to them. I would listen and jot down the gist of their decisions.
Mrs Roosevelt, on the other hand , took care of the English speaking delegates. She even tried to convince Soviets and other communists (to no avail evidently) . She spent also hours to cool down the ardor of some Latin American representatives who proposed many changes. They mostly advocated a kind of militant feminism which would frighten some non-Western members!
Despite all these efforts, the Third Committee hit many snags and sometimes the adoption of a single article of the Declaration dragged over three, four or even more sessions. The delegates (often parliamentaries) thinking of their “constituencies” at home wanted to be on the record. One such unusual protraction concerned the very first article of the Declaration.
SHOULD WOMEN ACT SISTERLY?
The article read: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
The ladies from Latin America were unhappy with, among other things, the use of the word: “brotherhood”. They argued that it refered to men and therefore excluded women. Some of them proposed different wordings, such as: “All men and women are born free and equal… etc.” To support their proposals, they spew screeds studded with feminist stuff. Their endless speeches would run for hours at night sessions.
Among these ladies, one Miss Bernardini, from the Dominican Republic (if I am not mistaken) was the most vocal. She was a plump woman with heavily reddened cheeks. She intervened on all kind of subjects. But on women’s rights she proved adamant and would not accept the slightest compromise.
Even Mrs Rossevelt with her proverbial patience failed to convince her that the word “brotherhood” was in fact a figure of speech that included women as well. She kept insisting on the addition of the word “sisterhood” after “brotherhood”. Then the article would have read: “… should act towards one another in a sipirit of sisterhood and brotherhood “. Professor Cassin and some other delegates tried their best to have her withdraw her amendment. But they did not succeed.
Finally after four lengthy sessions, Ambassador Pavlov hit pay dirt and broke the deadlock. This happened at a night session, after 11 pm. The bearded son of Lenin asked for the floor, to the dismay of the Chairman and the delegates who were eager to leave. Indeed he usually spoke at length and everybody was already tired.
For once, Pavlov was brief. He opposed Miss Bernardini’s amendment on the grounds that it invited women to act “sisterly” towards men. He winded up his short comments by saying (I quote from memory ): “I must firmly declare in this Committee that I, for one, absolutely refuse that women act sisterly towards me!”
The whole committee fell in fits of laughter and an outraged miss Bernardini, her cheeks redder than ever, quit the room. Taking advantage of the incident, the Chairman put the draft article to vote. It was unanimously adopted!
After that memorable night, discussions continued more or less slowly and the other articles were voted with or without changes. Pavlov, Baroody and some others aired their opposition along the road. But they could not stop the steady progress towards the adoption of the text: they lacked followers!
I was amazed to notice that the Pakistani and Egyptian delegates highly praised the Declaration. Even the Syrians and the Afghans cast positive votes on almost all the articles. In fact they were paying lip-service to a document they considered as a non-binding enumeration of “impractical” ideals. “A piece of paper!” proclaimed one Arab journalist from Bagdad.
Actually, except for members of Western delegations, one would meet very few people believing in the importance and the future of the Declaration.
At any rate representatives of the Third World did not hide, at least in private, their deep-seated skepticism. The Soviets and their satellites were actively opposing it. They didn’t spare any effort to prolong the discussions in order to avoid a final vote at the 1948 session of the General Assembly.
One evening, the Chairman, upset by Pavlov’s delaying tactics ordered interpreters to cut the translation of his utterings and proceeded with the voting of the item at hand. Pavlov abstained, contrary to his communist colleagues who voted against. After the Chairman announced the results, Pavlov explained his abstention in the following manner (I quote from memory):
“Mr Chairman you forced me to abstain because I was confused with all theses amendments and didn’t know on which you wanted us to vote. I just tried to ask you for clarification. I know that the great majority of the representatives around this table need not know what they are voting on. They just look at Mrs Roosevelt and do what she does!”
Even the Chairman and Mrs Roosevelt burst in laughter. I smiled, but remembering my own instructions I thought that the man from Moscow was not very far from the truth!
Day and night meetings followed one after another with tons of amendments and sub-amendments and spates of impassionate speeches against and in favor of each article of the draft Declaration. If the dilatory tactics of the communist bloc and some others (Saudi Arabia, South Africa, etc) somehow slowed the voting process, they failed to stop it. In addition to my work for the Iranian delegation and the UN radio, I continued to help the volonteers in the unofficial working group of professor Cassin.
Having behold the proceedings both in the open and behind the scene, I can vouch that without the untiring and unremitting efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt and Rene Cassin, the Declaration could have not been finalized at the 1948 session of the General Assembly. As December came and all the other Committees completed their agendas, some delegates spoke of allowing the Third Committee to resume its meetings in January in New York and to reconvene the General Assembly for one or two days in February. The Soviets mulled over another idea: sending the remaining business to the next regular session.
Americans opposed any delay and the French wanted to link the Declaration with the name of their Capital. They both pressured their clients and friends and put on a final spurt to speed up the remaining work in the Committee. By December eighth the last article was approved and the Declaration was submitted to the General Assembly which considered it on the tenth.
The final vote of approal came shortly after midnight. Most countries were represented by junior delegates like me. Only Mrs Roosevelt, Professor Cassin and other top Western representatives pronounced speeches underscoring the importance of the document.
That night, before parting, the Western delegates were in a highly festive mood. Some others joined them, but kept uttering cynical comments in private. Nobody would implement such lofty and unrealistic principles, they repeated. A few considered the Declaration as part of a Western conspiracy aimed at imposing Christianity or capitalism on the whole world.
A MOST IMPORTANT STEP IN HUMANITY’S FATE
Looking back at that historic night I can affirm with absolute certainty that the 1948 cynics and pessimists were totally mistaken. Events have vindicated the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Rene Cassin who were dubbed at the time as “starry-eyed “and “dream-weavers”.
Actually, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is of utmost importance not only because of its defense of individuals against tyranny and exploitation, but also because it sowed the first seed of what we call today “Globalization”.
Indeed it presented a unified description of the basic rights of the individual. Its enemies, the despots and exploiters of their fellow human beings, brandish so-called “cultural” differences in order to avoid its implementation. They can fool nobody. Rights are as global as the economy and the flow of information.
Over the past fifty and some years, both as a diplomat and a writer, I have witnessed the ever growing influence of the Declaration around the world. It has been used more and more often in the defense of ordinary people and for their advancement. Its principles have been included in and continue to inspire national legislation of many states.
It is true that a number of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes still violate Human Rights of their own people. Nevertheless, some of their citizens who have become familiar with the Declaration claim their rights and protest against abuses. For instance, students seek democratic reforms in China or Iran; in Pakistan and other Muslim countries, women demand equalitry and the same protection under law as men.
Moreover, spawning international organizations and national groups regularly denounce their repressive regimes. Patiently, non-governmental organizations continue to pressure governments for the respect and implementation of the Rights listed in the Declaration. They also encourage individuals ,especially in the Third World, to promote and defend their rights.
Thus since its creation in the fifties, Amnesty International has worked very hard to produce and widely distribute documents about prisoners of conscience and other persons whose fundamental rights are denied. It continues to lead protests against violations of basic rights, all over the World.
Today, the Declaration is known to many people even in the remotest parts of our world. Hundreds of human rights organization have been founded at the international level as well as inside countries. The latter are thriving and fighting back even in authoritarian and repressive governmental systems. The impact of the idea of human rights is by now undeniable.
Yet a lot remains to be done. This is a domain where the fight can never be considered over. The achievements should be protected. And those who have gained their rights must continue the struggle in order to extent the benefits to less fortunate people.
This is indeed an ongoing battle. As the Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, visiting Tehran in 1998, told Iranian students: “Human rights are your rights. Understand them and insist on them. They are the true reflection of humanity’s highest aspirations. They are the best in us. Give them life.”
In my personal case, the Declaration has had a deep impact. In fact since the fall of 1948, my life has been often intertwined with human rights. Thus when in 1952 I joined the staff of Unesco, I became involved with the problem of freedom of information and organized and run conferences and seminars on the subject in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Later on, in 1966, as one of the Iranian delegates to the General Assembly of the United Nations, I found myself once again in the Third Committee, discussing Human Rights. Indeed the most important items of the agenda concerned the finalizations of two international treaties: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Debates were even more heated than in 1948 and oppositions deeper. Two of the “old-timers” were still around: Jamil Baroody and Rene Cassin, but with whitened hair and wrinkled faces. I myself had grown up and occupied a higher position than in 1948.
Due to my involvement in the finalization of the UDHR, my colleagues from the Third World asked me to conduct on their behalf the negociations with the Western delegates. Remembering the private group set up in 1948 by Mrs Roosevelt and professor Cassin, I invited a limited number of Third World and Western delegates to meet unofficially with me.
After lengthy and arduous discussions, we were able to present to the General Assembly the two Covenants which were unanimously adopted and entered into force in 1976 .
In 1965, I was sent by Unesco to Iran in order to organize the International Conference on Literacy. In 1968, I was asked by the Iranian Government to help in holding the UN International Conference on Human Rights, marking the 20th anniversary of the UDHR.
Again , in 1974, as Permanent representative of Iran to the United Nations and president of the so-called “Group of 77” (underdeveloped countries) I found myself in the midst of a fierce confrontation between the West and the Third World. I was asked by my colleagues to conduct the negociations concerning the so-called “New International Economic Order” which took place at a time when the price of oil had skyrocketed.
Thus, during my whole career as a diplomat or international civil servant I have been involved in one way or another with human rights. And now that the UDHR is over fifty years of age, all of a sudden it appears to me that I probably am the only survivor of those who finalized its text in 1948. Actor and witness!
I consider it my duty to recall the difficulties and obstacles which existed then and sometimes continue to hinder the full implementation of the rights enshrined in the Declaration. At age 50 it has, if I may say so, gained “weight” (without losing its balance and elegance).
In hindsight, reviewing my long involvement with international organizations, I can affirm that it is the most significant and influential single achievement of the United Nations. It upsets all authoritarian or totalitarian regimes on our planet: Cuba’s Fidel as well as Myanmar’s military junta; China’s rulers as well as Iran’s mullahs; Egypt’s Mubarak as well as Zimbabwee’s Mughabe; and so on.
The Declaration does not know time prescription or geographical restriction. The recent Pinochet affair in Europe shows abundantly that offenders can always be singled out and pursued! Dictators should know that the Declaration's finger will remain pointed at them, no matter where they are. There is no safe haven for them on this planet or even in anorther world!
This reminds me the words René Cassin pronounced at the end of the Paris 1948 session of the General Assembly: “The Declaration is the most urgently needed of humanity’s protest against opression.” I feel proud of having been present at its birth and modestly contributed to its delivery and upbringing.
Fereydoun Hoveyda (www.hoveyda.org) is a Senior Fellow at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. As a young Iranian diplomat , he was involved in the preparatory work for the San Francisco Conference that adopted the Charter of the U.N. (1945) In 1947 and 1948 he participated in the drafting and voting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.