75 Years of Human Rights: How to Mark This Year?

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Eleanor Roosevelt with a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1949. FDR Presidential Library & Museum – Photograph NPX 64-165.

This is the first of a two-part series to mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The second post will appear on this site tomorrow.

Jennifer Tunnicliffe

This year marks an important anniversary for the United Nations. Seventy-five years ago, on December 10, 1948, member states of the newly formed organization adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the first international “human rights” instrument. In asserting that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”, the UDHR reflected a new universal language of rights and freedoms. As stated in its preamble, the goal of the document was to act as a “common standard of achievement” for the promotion of and respect for the rights it outlined, and to secure their “universal and effective recognition and observance.” In its thirty articles, it sets out a list of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights that deserve protection in order to ensure the “inherent dignity of all members of the human family.”[1]

The adoption of the UDHR was a remarkable achievement and it continues to form the basis of international human rights law. According to the UN, since its proclamation seventy-five years ago, the Declaration has been translated into more than five hundred languages, has inspired more than seventy global and regional human rights treaties, and helps to guide the work of the UN today.[2]

Many histories of the UDHR highlight its “unanimous” adoption by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948, presenting it as an important moment of consensus in which members states of the UN recognized human rights as the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world. This emphasis on consensus, however, belies the lack of representation at the United Nations at the time for people still under colonial rule. It also ignores the fact that eight of fifty-eight states abstained from supporting the UDHR that day, and obscures the intense debates that took place over the form, wording, and substance of the instrument.[3] “Human rights” – how they were conceived, how they ought to be articulated in law, which rights should take precedence, and the degree to which they could be implemented – were deeply contested in 1948.

Conventional histories generally overlook Canada’s history of resistance to the UDHR in 1948. Although many Canadians assume their government supported the development of international human rights law in the postwar period, in fact Ottawa resisted the adoption of a UN declaration of human rights, and opposed efforts to draft international covenants on human rights well into the 1960s. Canada contributed very little to discussions at the UN on the specifics of the draft declaration, and abstained in the early votes on the instrument’s adoption in the General Assembly.[4] Only in response to international pressure, most vocally from Britain and the United States, did Canada change its vote to support the adoption of the UDHR on December 10, but it did so with officially stated reservations.[5]

Clues to explain Canada’s opposition can be found a speech given by Lester Pearson, then minister for external affairs, to the General Assembly just prior to the final vote on the UDHR. In outlining Canada’s reservations toward the document, Pearson claimed a declaration of human rights would pose jurisdictional challenges for Canada.[6] He also cited other areas of concern, including the language of the declaration, its definition of rights, and differences from Canada’s traditional methods of protecting rights.[7] Many Canadian officials were uncomfortable with a codified bill of international rights, feeling that it undermined the British tradition of parliamentary supremacy and might provide an argument to activists at home pushing for a national bill of rights. Additionally, given the narrow conception of “civil liberties” in Canada at the time, the idea of universal human rights – especially the inclusion of social and economic rights – seemed too expansive to Canadian lawmakers. Well aware that discriminatory laws in Canada could be considered in violation of the UDHR’s provisions, policy makers saw it as an unnecessary legal instrument that would interfere with Canadian sovereignty and make Canada vulnerable to potentially embarrassing attacks.[8] Yet, in the face of pressure from its allies, to avoid voting in the company of states such as the Soviet Union and South Africa, and aware that the UDHR would not be legally-binding, Canada was willing to change its vote.

In the years that followed, Ottawa’s resistance to international human rights instruments continued; throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Canadian policy toward the development of the UN’s two covenants on human rights was consistent with its earlier opposition to the UDHR. By the mid-1960s, however, growing support for human rights at home and concerns over maintaining Canada’s image as a humanitarian state forced federal policy makers to rethink their approach to the UN’s human rights instruments. As a result, in 1966 Canada voted to support the final adoption of both covenants on human rights, although its position could hardly be considered enthusiastic; in the article-by-article votes on the covenants, Canada abstained in fourteen of the forty-three votes[9], and it took ten years for Ottawa to ratify the instruments.

Given this complicated history, how will the UN and the Canadian government commemorate the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the UDHR? It should be an occasion to acknowledge the past and present significance of the instrument, the ways in which it has inspired the expansion of human rights in international and national law, and how it has provided a tool for oppressed peoples to demand justice and equal treatment. It is also important to remember that the Declaration emerged at a time in which member states of the UN recognized that stable and lasting peace requires respect for and the protection of human rights.

But it is also an opportunity to consider the full legacy of the UDHR, acknowledging that millions of people around the globe do not have access to the rights it proscribes, and that human rights themselves remain as deeply contested today as they were in 1948 – perhaps even more so. Despite its universalist aspirations, the Declaration is a product of its time and of a UN whose membership was less than a third of what it is today. Important voices were absent, including those of many colonized peoples and Indigenous peoples who were, and continue to be, the victims of devastating human rights violations.

The content of the UDHR was heavily influenced by a Eurocentric, liberal democratic tradition of rights that prioritizes individual over collective rights, and civil and political over social and economic rights, in ways that can be incongruous with understandings of rights in other traditions. Although the UN has adopted numerous other instruments over the past seventy-five years to expand how it defines human rights and to recognize the collective rights of certain groups (the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is one example), critics argue that situating these newer instruments within the existing UN system of rights creates a hierarchy in which they remain “second place” to the foundational ideas of the UDHR. It also places implementation in the hands of the very states accused of violating these rights.

Within Canada, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the UDHR provides an opportunity to celebrate the work of those who have fought so hard to strengthen human rights protections in Canada and around the world. Whether or not it is also a time to acknowledge and attempt to reconcile Canada’s long history of oppression and rights violations, to speak to the work that still needs to be done, or to concede that Canada’s history of support for international human rights has been inconsistent at best, remains to be seen. But Canadians would be better served by the latter. This would not only provide context for Canada’s continued reluctance to be bound by international human rights law, particularly in regard to its relationship with Indigenous peoples and to racism and non-discrimination[10], but could provide a starting point for conversations about the future of human rights in Canada.

Jennifer Tunnicliffe is an Assistant Professor of History at Toronto Metropolitan University. Her research focuses on Canadian and international human rights history, with particular attention to how social movements shape legislative approaches to rights and freedoms. Her first book, Resisting Rights: Canada and the International Bill of Rights, 1946-76 (UBC Press, 2019) examines Canada’s resistance to the development of human rights instruments at the United Nations after the Second World War. She is also co-editor of Constant Struggle: Histories of Democratization (McGill-Queen’s, 2021), a collection of essays that explores Canada’s history with democracy. Her current book project focuses on the history of free speech and of hate speech laws in Canada, working to situate Canada’s efforts to regulate hate speech into a global perspective.


[1] United Nations, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[2] Ibid.

[3] The eight states that abstained in the final vote on December 10, 1948 were: Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the Soviet Union, Byelorussia, the Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.

[4] Canada abstained up to and including the second-last vote on the UDHR on December 6, 1948.

[5] For more detail on Canada’s lack of involvement, see William A. Schabas, “Canada and the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” McGill Law Journal 43, 2 (1998): 403–41; A.J. Hobbins, “Eleanor Roosevelt, John Humphrey and Canadian Opposition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Looking Back on the 50th Anniversary of the UDHR,” International Journal 53, 2 (1998): 325–42.

[6] Despite this claim, Pearson and the Canadian government were aware that the UDHR was not a legally binding instrument and would not require any legislative changes in Canada.

[7] Lester B. Pearson, “Statement on the Universal Declaration on Human Rights,” 10 December 1948, file 5475-DP-40, vol. 3701, RG25, Library and Archives Canada.

[8] Jennifer Tunnicliffe, Resisting Rights: Canada and the International Bill of Rights, 1947-76 (UBC Press, 2019), chapter 1.

[9] “Convention on Human Rights – Canadian Votes,” 1966, File 45-13-2-3, Part 1, Vol. 13112, RG25, LAC. Within the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Canada abstained from Articles 6, 13, 14, and 15. Within the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Canada abstained from Articles 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15 and 25.

[10] For evidence of this, see the final report of the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Canada in 2018, and the Canadian response. https://www.ohchr.org/en/hr-bodies/upr/ca-index  

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