Ever since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted and proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948, detractors from the right and left have sought to chip away at, if not torpedo, the conviction that the 30-article document represents the universal aspirations and affirmation of all of humanity.

Some Western commentators pretend that the UDHR can be traced to the Magna Carta, which is seen as an entirely Western achievement and document, and to the European Enlightenment, the implication being that non-Western heathens couldn’t possibly have conceived of such fine notions as democracy and human rights.
Exalted Europe merely adopted certain discoveries and inventions of the Chinese, Indian, Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations to do with astronomy, mathematics and physics and some knick-knacks such as silk and pepper and had no use for philosophy and other intellectual pursuits (what intellectual pursuits? Forsooth!): such is the implication of their thinking.
This is dismissed brilliantly by someone who knows the West and the East like few other and who has traveled the far corners of the globe in a long international career: Bertrand G. Ramcharan, the Guyanese legal luminary, diplomat and educationist, who had been acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, says in his book Contemporary Human Rights Ideas: “Although the idea of human rights has seen great intellectual fermentation in Western philosophy and practice since the Magna Carta of 1215, this intellectual activity drew on earlier ideas of law, justice and humanity from ancient civilizations…
“The quest for justice in Babylon, China, India, Egypt, wider Mesopotamia, Persia and Sumeria long predated that drive in Western civilization.”

Pierre-Etienne Will, in his authoritative work, La Chine et la democratie, devotes an entire chapter entitled “Chinese contribution to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and notes that the main Chinese drafter P.C. Chang (Chang Peng-chun/Zhang Pengchun/張 彭 春;) “…insista dans son discours devant l’Assemblee generale, au moment du vote final, sur le fait que deux siecles plus tot la pensee chinoise avait influence l’emergence de la notion de droits de l’homme dans l’Europe des Lumieres a travers les traductions de “philosophes chinois” qu’avaient pu lire Voltaire, Quesnay ou Diderot.”(My translation: As the General Assembly prepared to vote, Chang stressed that two centuries earlier, Chinese thought influenced the emergence of the human rights notion during the European Enlightenment, through translations of Chinese philosophers that Voltaire, Quesnay or Diderot was able to read.)

P.C. Chang

P.C. Chang was not the only one putting a Chinese stamp on the UDHR. According to Prof Will, other leading Chinese diplomats and intellectuals such as C.L. Hsia (Xia Jinlin), John C.H. Wu (Wu Jingxiong), T.Y. Wu, Wu Nanru and Luo Zhongshu took an active part in the proceedings.
It is particularly poignant to recall the Chinese role in the UDHR today, 10 December as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, and his associates were prevented from going to Oslo on this day in 2010 by a nominally communist regime of marauding moneybags riding roughshod over a populace deprived of trade union rights, not to speak of other rights.
The following page from a website dedicated to Eleanor Roosevelt and the UDHR lists the main people who took part in its drafting:
And what a fine list it is. Little is known of the Iranian Abol Ghassem Pourevaly and the Egyptian Omar Loufti today but Charles Malik is remembered as a philosopher turned adept diplomat who had a great influence as representative of the Arab League, intervening brilliantly to steer the declaration through the emerging treacherous Cold War currents.

Gita Sahgal, in an insightful article in openDemocracy, points out the role of Pakistani diplomats, Begum Shaista Ikramullah and Mohammed Zafrullah Khan in the drafting of the UDHR. http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/gita-sahgal/who-wrote-universal-declaration-of-human-rights

According to Dr Allida Black of George Washington University, who is an authority on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, she was “particularly close to (free India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal) Nehru, (Charles) Malik, Hansa Mehta – and she read intensely. Particularly Gandhi, Tolstoy, Dickens, the Bible, the Koran, and Pearl Buck.”

Hansa Mehta “made sure the Declaration spoke with power and clarity about equal rights for women well before they were recognized in most legal systems,” says Mary Ann Glendon, author of A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This is a Hansa Mehta few of us in India know much about.

Hansa Mehta

Historian Ramachandra Guha, in his now famous book India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy notes her intervention in the drafting of the country’s constitution and expressing herself firmly in the Constituent Assembly in favour of real equality between men and women rather than crumbs: “We have never asked for privileges. What we have asked for is social justice, economic justice and political justice. We have asked for that equality which alone can be the basis of mutual respect and understanding and without which real cooperation is not possible between man and woman.”
She said that 60 years ago and the words remain fresh. So it is high time we put an end to any notion that the origins of the UDHR were less than universal.
But what about its application?

Here, first a couple of generations of misguided or cynical lefties, spurious Third Worldists and then a motley gang of Asian Values types has mounted numerous assaults to erode the consequences of the UDHR. Actually a lot of the lefties matured out of a visceral suspicion of human rights talk either because they, well, tired of their meaningless rant, opening their eyes to the suffering of the real people around them or acquired other interests such as in the corporate world or in positions of power.

The Asian Values crowd has remained more of an insidious influence. When articulated by leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir Mohamed and – though not in the same language but certainly the same spirit – the Beijing authorities, it makes for a seductive message especially as they have succeeded in delivering runaway economic growth rates while keeping their citizens’ mouths firmly shut.

But there is nothing particularly Asian, African, Arab, European or American about being bewildered when one’s livelihood is threatened. When cynical developers, backed by politicians in their pay, come knocking down entire blocks of houses of poor people and the latter shout and scream and try to march to a government office seeking justice, there is nothing regional or ethno-specific about it. This happens, and has happened, everywhere. Hapless people, without even having read the UDHR, assert rights that regimes everywhere fail or have failed to guarantee.

Right to life, to food, to associate with fellowmen and women in seeking justice or redress for gross instance of injustice: there is nothing unAsian or unAfrican or unArab about it.
Not only scholars such as Amartya Sen or Yash Ghai but leaders including Kim Dae-jung (himself a victim of the South Korean dictatorship who went on to become a democratically elected president) have convincingly derided the Asian Values claims.

One of my former teachers, Professor Suzannah Linton, takes an extremely dim view of persisting questions in Asia over universality, pointing out that ALL countries attended the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna (June 1993) and adopted by ACCLAMATION, meaning without disagreement, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action which said: “Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which constitutes a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, is the source of inspiration and has been the basis for the United Nations in making advances in standard setting as contained in the existing international human rights instruments, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights… The universal nature of these rights and freedoms is beyond question.”

The trouble, however, is that the so-called “Beijing Consensus” – shorthand for an opportunistic alliance of authoritarian and corrupt regimes that routinely trample on the rights of their peoples – seems at times to be gaining ground merely because some (some, not all) of the Asian dictatorships seem to have done well while some democracies are muddling along.

Fortified by and believing their own lies, the regimes carry on with impunity.
But, try as these regimes might to airbrush out the idealistic slogans they had only recently been mouthing and proclaiming on walls all over, the animals outside do have some semblance of memory.

They remember vividly the times when the wall said All Animals Are Equal.
They shall inherit.

About walkerjay

The author, N. Jayaram, a journalist now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi, was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions.
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  1. Aniery says:

    I never heard about Hansa Mehta and your analysis on the Asian values crowd is pertinent.
    But a recent article in the Guardian on the Nobel prize winner Liu Xiabo gives a different perspective of this gentleman:

    • walkerjay says:

      Sorry, I had not initially noticed the Guardian link re Liu Xiabo. You might probably be unaware that Prof Sautman is busy carving out a career as a defender of Beijing on issues such as Tibet, Africa and human rights.

  2. Gita Sahgal says:

    Thanks so much for posting this on openDemocracy. I shall tweet this post @GitaSahgal #secularspace

  3. Great article Jay! However, it should be pointed out that Beijing is yielding/adapting to its citizens’ demands in human rights, with human rights being specifically mentioned in the Criminal Procedure Law and the rights of people being protected (somewhat better) in the new Mental Health Law, for example. This is not to discount your argument, but just to say that the scope of human rights and human rights discourse is slowly expanding in China.

    • walkerjay says:

      Thanks for this William. Yes, human rights discourse is not only about dissidents and Tibetans and so on. It is also about ordinary workers and others. Here’s hoping there’ll be a bit more light let in during the Xi Jinping era.

    • walkerjay says:

      Hi William,
      It would be useful to have your current observations now that we live in an era wherein Xi Jinping is riding roughshod (and not only all over the front pages of the People’s Daily).

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