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“While history alone can determine the historic significance of an event, it is safe to say that the declaration before us may be destined to occupy an honorable place in the procession of positive landmarks in human history.” – Charles Habib Malek 

75 years ago to the day, on 10 December 1948, the 183rd session of the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Two years later, December 10 was proclaimed Human Rights Day.

To get a behind-the-scenes look at this event, documentary producer and director Rawan Damen returned to the UN headquarters in New York and Geneva. For three years, she examined the minutes of United Nations meetings and investigated the negotiations and consultations that took place between 1945 and 10 December 1948.

This resulted in “The Declaration,” a documentary in Arabic and English that highlights the contributions of representatives from the countries of the South to the drafting of the UDHR.

You remark that many articles were written or influenced by representatives from countries in the global South. Why is this important?

This responds to the false idea that the UDHR was drafted by and for the countries of the North. This is untrue, despite the fact that history books do not dwell on the contributions of Charles Malek or other representatives of so-called Southern countries. The United Nations archives testify that Charles Habib Malek, then representative of Lebanon and rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights, played a leading role in orchestrating the adoption of the UDHR thanks to his patience and wisdom. He is best known for his mediation between the countries of the North and South. The main challenge of the project lay in the text itself. There had to be a text that countries would approve, adopt and respect. That was an ideological, legal and political challenge that seemed impossible a mere three years after the end of the Second World War. The minutes of the meetings, including that of the 183rd session of the United Nations General Assembly  at which the UDHR was adopted, detail these positions. Similar to the French and American declarations, the draft of the UDHR stipulated that all men were equal. Hansa Mehta, from India, insisted that equal rights for men and women should be made explicit, and argued that the term “men” could not be taken for granted as including women. The text would become “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” thus making the first article of the UDHR more inclusive. Hansa Mehta is an inspiring woman. Born into a very wealthy Indian family, she was influenced by the Indian revolution and took a poor Indian doctor as her husband. She challenged her family, her class, her city and even the text of the UDHR, persevering all the way until she changed the language used and obtained the necessary support from other countries.

Women politicians and representatives from the South were determined to make their voices heard in order to influence and contribute to the UDHR. Carlos Romulo from the Philippines ensured that discrimination was not motivated by race, and Hernan Santa Cruz from Chile contributed to ensuring that social and economic rights were as important in the UDHR as political and civil rights. These positions are still relevant today, 75 years on.

This shows that the UDHR is a truly cross-border collaboration, a highly intellectual, legal and political work.

Why is “dignity” one of the most important terms in the UDHR?

It took philosophical and legal discussions between representatives of several countries to agree that the principle of dignity makes it possible to avoid physical violations (such as murder and imprisonment) and to guarantee access to water, food, health, international movement and so on.

This principle grips us today, as the war in Gaza wreaks havoc and Palestinians are murdered and stripped of all dignity, in a blatant rejection of the principles of the UDHR. The dignity of human beings in Palestine, southern Lebanon, and other places is a target. I wonder what mechanism has been adopted to implement the provisions of the UDHR. We celebrate the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the UDHR with a denied dignity.

Your documentary “The Declaration” highlights the efforts made by countries around the world to guarantee the rights and future of future generations. 75 years after its creation, do you think the UDHR still serves its purpose?

The UDHR laid a foundation that all countries can agree on for a human rights declaration. However, the mechanisms needed to implement the provisions of the UDHR are still lacking. If the countries of the South (i.e. the countries of Africa, Latin America, East Asia and the Middle East) were to work together again in the spirit of the discussions that took place between 1945 and 1948, they would constitute a force that pushes the countries of the North (essentially the United States and the countries of Europe) to start putting in place the mechanisms needed to ensure respect for human beings in accordance with the stipulations of the UDHR. The United Nations is capable of carrying out this project, provided that the countries of the North and the South are willing to do so.

We sometimes wonder whether the political will to work in this direction could exist in the midst of global polarization. I’d like to point out the large popular demonstrations that are now taking place across the United States, Europe, Japan and other countries to denounce all kinds of injustice, and to acclaim all human rights. Political polarization is more evident in the leading political figures and in their statements. The reality of the people is different, and it is imprecise to talk of popular polarization between different blocs. We need more cross-border collaborations to tend towards human rights and equivalent support for human beings in Ukraine and human beings in Palestine and Syria, rather than inventing divisions using geography or ideology as an excuse.