The Explainer: UN Charter

That was Eleanor Roosevelt, former First Lady of the United States, addressing the 58 member countries of the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and so, that’s our topic for this show. I’m Manolo Quezon, the Explainer.


I. The Rights of Man


There’s a reason the United Nations chose Eleanor Roosevelt, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s widow, to be the chairman of the commission that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But before we get into that, as Eleanor Roosevelt herself told the UN’s General Assembly, there was a particular reason the UN thought the time was ripe to make a universal declaration of rights in the first place.

This famous sketch by the artist David, of his work, The Tennis Court Oath, tells us why. That was, the proclamation of the Rights of Man by the revolutionaries of France, in 1789. The idea that there were rights that were each and every person’s to exercise not by divine favor or royal grace, was a legacy of that revolution.

The ideas of inherent, natural rights, of liberties that were an essential part of being human, inspired our founding fathers, from Rizal, whose contemporaries looked to the Enlightenment in Europe for inspiration,

To Apolinario Mabini, who tried to find a practical application of those rights in his his True Decalogue and in his proposed draft for the Constitution of the Malolos Republic.


Even when our Malolos Republic was crushed by force of American arms, the ideas of universal rights continued to inspire Filipinos, and as far as similar principles were shared by foreigners, provided the means for restoring our freedoms.

US President Woodrow Wilson, during whose administration the Jones Law was passed in 1916, making the question of Philippine independence no longer a question of if, but rather, when, took the anti-imperialist platform of his Democratic Party further and proposed sweeping principles to govern international conduct in the wake of World War I.

Wilson proposed an international body to uphold such principles as the right of self-determination, which would be known as the League of Nations. But the League of Nations proved powerless, unable to prevent the outbreak of World War II.


And so it was, ironically, this man, Adolf Hitler:

Who pushed the Wilsonian ideal of an international body to prevent war, forward.


Winston Churchill, trying to find ways to obtain American support for Britain, almost singlehandedly facing Hitler’s might,

And Franklin D. Roosevelt, increasingly concerned about the ability of the world’s democracies to resist fascism, had to find a way to keep Britain’s resistance going, while avoiding antagonizing American public opinion, which, at that time, was skeptical about risking lives and money for what Americans considered the petty quarrels of Europe.

On  August 14, 1941 the two leaders met and came to an agreement on broad principles that they christened The Atlantic Charter. These were ideals that were meant to rally the democratic world to fight fascism, and to outline the objectives of that fight.

What were those ideals?

First, their countries seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other;

Second, they desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned;

Third, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them;

Fourth, they will endeavor, with due respect for their existing obligations, to further the enjoyment by all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity;

Fifth, they desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security;

Sixth, after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny, they hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want;

Seventh, such a peace should enable all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance;

Eighth, they believe that all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten, aggression outside of their frontiers, they believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practicable measures which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments.

When the United States joined the War after Pearl Harbor, the Atlantic Charter became, in essence, the mission-vision statement for the Allied Cause. The Allies became known as the United Nations.

Roosevelt himself boiled down the Allied mission-vision statement to what he called “The Four Freedoms” that all people allied in the fight against Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, were fighting for.

To disseminate those four freedoms, the American artist Normal Rockwell was commissioned to design four posters.

Here they are:

Freedom from Want.

Freedom from Fear.

Freedom of Speech.

And Freedom of Worship.

When I go around schools, I show these images to schoolkids and ask them to reflect how freedom can be freedom from something, as much as freedom to do certain things.

The principle of self-determination for peoples, which dated back to Woodrow Wilson, and was part of the Atlantic Charter, was a powerful force for mobilizing public opinion for people like ourselves.

And indeed, even though independence wasn’t yet formally proclaimed, and our territory was under Japanese Control, in 1943, the Philippines joined the ranks of the United Nations.

In 1945, the Germans, Italians, and Japanese having been defeated, the transformation of the United Nations from wartime alliance to international peace body, took place. Again, the Philippines, not yet independent but already recognized as in all other respects part of the community of nations, was among the charter members of the UN.

Here’s Carlos P. Romulo, our first Ambassador to the UN, signing the UN Treaty, with our first generation of diplomats in the background.

And with the ravages of World War II in mind, including the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis and the warcrimes undertaken by the Japanese, the global community set about coming up with a covenant to prevent such things ever taking place again.

It would a declaration of rights –but universal. And that’s what we’ll tackle when we return.


II. A Universal Declaration


That was a marvelous public service commercial by an NGO.

So having looked at the origins of the effort to come up with a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, let’s take a look at how it came about, and what’s in it. For that, I’m going to rely almost exclusively from text provided by the United Nations itself.

The text was drafted in two years – between January 1947, when the Commission on Human Rights first met to prepare an International Bill of Human Rights,and December 1948, when the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration. An eight-member drafting committee prepared the preliminary text of the Universal Declaration.The committee, chaired by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of the former United States President, agreed on the central importance of affirming universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the principles of non-discrimination and civil and political rights, as well as social, cultural and economic rights. The Commission then revised the draft declaration, in the light of replies from Member States, before submitting it to the General Assembly.

The General Assembly, in turn, scrutinized the document, with the 58 Member States voting a total of 1,400 times on practically every word and every clause of the text. There were many debates. Some Islamic States objected to the articles on equal marriage rights and on the right to change religious belief, for example, while several Western countries criticized the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights. On 10 December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with 8 abstentions. Since then, 10 December is celebrated every year worldwide as Human Rights Day. The adoption of the Declaration was immediately hailed as a triumph, uniting very diverse and even conflicting political regimes, religious systems and cultural traditions. During 1998, the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration is being commemorated all over the world as Human RightsYear.


The Universal Declaration covers the range of human rights in 30 clear and concise articles. The first two articles lay the universal foundation of human rights: human beings are equal because of their shared essence of human dignity; human rights are universal, not because of any State or international organization, but because they belong to all of humanity. The two articles assure that human rights are the birthright of everyone, not privileges of a select few, nor privileges to be granted or denied. Article 1 declares that “all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason andconscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Article 2 recognizes the universal dignity of a life free from discrimination. “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

The first cluster of articles, 3 to 21, sets forth civil and political rights to which everyone is entitled. The right to life, liberty and personal security, recognized in Article 3, sets the base for all following political rights and civil liberties, including freedom from slavery, torture and arbitrary arrest, as well as the rights to a fair trial, free speech and free movement and privacy.

The second cluster of articles, 22 to27, sets forth the economic, social and cultural rights to which all human beings are entitled. The cornerstone of these rights is Article 22, acknowledging that, as a member of society, everyone has the right to social security and is therefore entitled to the realization of the economic, social and cultural rights “indispensable” for his or her dignity and free and full personal development. Five articles elaborate the rights necessary for the enjoyment of the fundamental right to social security, including economic rights related to work, fair remuneration and leisure, social rights concerning an adequate standard of living for health, well-being and education, and the right to participate in the cultural life of the community.

The third and final cluster of articles, 28 to 30, provides a larger protective framework in which all human rights are to be universally enjoyed. Article 28 recognizes the right to a social and international order that enables the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Article 29 acknowledges that, along with rights, human beings also have obligations to the community which also enable them to develop their individual potential freely and fully. Article 30, finally, protects the interpretation of the articles of the Declaration from any outside interference contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. It explicitly states that no State, group or person can claim, on the basis of the Declaration, to have the right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration.

Once the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, the Commission on Human Rights, the premier human rights intergovernmental body within the United Nations, set out to translate its principles into international treaties that protected specific rights. Given the unprecedented nature of the task, the General Assembly decided to draft two Covenants codifying the two sets of rights outlined in the Universal Declaration: Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Member States debated the individual provisions for two decades, seeking to give explicit endorsement to certain aspects of the universality of human rights only implicitly referred to in the Universal Declaration, such as the right of all peoples to self-determination, as well as reference to certain vulnerable groups, such as indigenous people and minorities.

Consensus was reached in 1966, and the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that year. The preambles and articles 1, 2, 3 and 5 are virtually identical in both International Covenants. Both preambles recognize that human rights derive from the inherent dignity of human beings. Article 1 of each Covenant affirms that all peoples have the right of self-determination and that by virtue of that right they are free to determine their political status and to pursue their economic, social and cultural development. Article 2, in both cases, reaffirms the principle of non-discrimination, echoing the Universal Declaration, while Article 3 stresses that States should ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all human rights. Article 5 of both Covenants echoes the final provision of the Universal Declaration, providing safeguards against the destruction or undue limitation of any human right or fundamental freedom. Two Optional Protocols elaborate certain provisions of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, one providing for complaints by individuals, the other advocating the abolition of the death penalty.

When they entered into force in 1976, the two International Covenants made many of the provisions of the Universal Declaration effectively binding for States that ratified them. These two International Covenants, together with the Universal Declaration and the Optional Protocols, comprise the International Bill of Human Rights.

Over 60 human rights treaties elaborate fundamental rights and freedoms contained in the International Bill of Human Rights, addressing concerns such as slavery, genocide, humanitarian law, the administration of justice, social development, religious tolerance, cultural cooperation, discrimination, violence against women, and the status of refugees and minorities. The following four Conventions, relating to racial discrimination, torture, women and children, are considered core human rights treaties, together with the two International Covenants:

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (adopted in 1965/entry into force 1969) was a ground-breaking treaty defining and condemning racial discrimination. Calling for national measures towards the advancement of specific racial or ethnic groups, the Convention also makes the dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or inspiring racial hatred punishable by law.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979/1981) specifies measures for the advancement and empowerment of women in private and public life, particularly in the areas of education, employment, health, marriage and the family.

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984/1987) bans torture and rape as weapons of war. In 1998, in a major effort to help torture victims and to step up international attempts to end torture, the United Nations declared 26 June as the annual International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989/1990) is the most universally ratified human rights Convention. Only two Member States, the United States and Somalia, are not yet parties to the Convention, which protects children, among other things, from economic and sexual exploitation.

Some 14 States have incorporated provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child into their constitutions, while 35 have passed new laws conforming to the Convention or amended laws related to child abuse, child labour and adoption. Other Member States have extended the length of compulsory education, guaranteed child refugees and minority children special protection or reformed juvenile justice systems, as stipulated by the Convention.

When we return, these universal rights, treaties, and obligations, from the Filipino point of view.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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