Signed, sealed & delivered
Casting the affirmative vote for Iran in approving the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights in 1948
August 12, 2005
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
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.
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
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
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
(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
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
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
against the "ugly" steel assemblage of the Eiffel
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
prefered extempore ones, studded with anecdotes and jokes. He
unabashedly mingled with other delegates, even the most well
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.
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
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
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
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
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
late sixties that the swelling membership allowed the
Third World to manifest its existence and try to balance the
influence of the two super-powers.
As to South Africa, its motives
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
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
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
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
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
: "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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Actually, except for members of Western delegations, one
would meet very few people believing in the importance and the
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):
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
Day and night meetings followed one after another with tons
of amendments and sub-amendments and spates of impassionate speeches
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.
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
idea: sending the remaining business to the next regular session.
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
article was approved and the Declaration was submitted to the
General Assembly which considered it on the tenth.
vote of approal came shortly after midnight. Most countries
were represented by junior delegates like me. Only Mrs Roosevelt,
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".
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
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.
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,
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,
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,
Human Rights. Indeed the most important items of the agenda
concerned the finalizations of two international treaties: the
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
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
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.
and arduous discussions, we were able to present to
the General Assembly the two Covenants which were unanimously
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
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!
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
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
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
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
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.