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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

France's contribution

René Cassin was a member of the League of Human Rights as of 1921. He was elected to its central committee in 1947, became an honorary member in 1955, and was vice-president of the Council of State from 1944 until 1960. This law professor once stated that, without the Dreyfus Affair, he would perhaps have chosen a military career. Cassin was a great jurist of Free France, and a member of the National French Committee assembled in London by General de Gaulle. In 1942, during discussions with Henri Laugier, the future Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, Cassin came up with the idea of a universal declaration.

As vice-president of the 18-member international commission that met in New York starting in February 1947, René Cassin pushed for the idea of making the Universal Declaration of Human Rights "the first ethical movement that organized humanity had ever adopted." A former delegate to the League of Nations and the International Labor Office, Cassin managed, in spite of the American position, to include mention of economic, social and cultural rights as fundamental rights that are linked to civil and political rights. René Cassin is also considered to be responsible for the choice of the concept of a "universal declaration", which implies the rights of individuals and not only those of signatory nations.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on 10 December 1948; it took up the principles of the declaration of 1789 by stating "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."

Difficulties and victories after 1948

The 1948 Declaration states "disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind." However, any pacts that could have resulted from this had to wait another eighteen years, while fifty years had to pass before the creation of an international criminal court. Conventions constitute the only opposable texts in terms of positive law; although the European Convention on Human Rights was adopted in Rome in 1950, it was not until 1981 that it was completely ratified by France. Since then, the profound disorder that can be observed across Europe testifies to the progress that remains to be made.

As the first president of the European Court of Human Rights, René Cassin displayed the fighting mentality of a Dreyfusard when he proclaimed: "We must have faith in human nature. Let us act in such a way that human will goes towards construction and harmony and not towards destruction and death."


Universal Declaration of 1948

René Cassin's catafalque in front of the Pantheon