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Program 9849
December 8, 1998


Ferydon Hoveyda, signer, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Wei Jinsheng, Chinese Dissident

Rigoberta Menchu, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Burns Weston, Professor of Law, University of Iowa

Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Price Laureate

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

FERYDON HOVEYDA: World War II had a—contrary to World War I—had a sort of moral commitment on the part of the Allies because they were fighting Hitler. And some people who were very much interested in human rights thought that this was the moment to create that. And now I say to everybody that without Mrs. Roosevelt and without Rene Cassin, the Universal Declaration would have not been adopted.

MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: Fifty years ago this month the nations of the world created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This week on Common Ground, we celebrate this landmark document.

BURNS WESTON: There’s probably no other international instrument that has had as profound an influence on human affairs worldwide. And when it has its fiftieth birthday it seems like we ought to take notice of that fact.

DAVIDSON: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.

ELIE WIESEL: I don’t think that we should worry more than necessary about everybody becoming an accomplice or a victim of genocide. But we should worry about genocidal trends, genocidal programs.

DAVIDSON: Elie Wiesel is a writer, a philosopher, and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. As a child he suffered through one of the worst human rights abuses of our time—the murder of over 6 million Jews and others at the hands of the Nazis. Wiesel survived the concentration camps but lost most of his family. His mission in life has been to force the world to remember the Holocaust so that it never happens again. But it is discouraging for him to watch tragedies unfold in other parts of the world time and again.

WIESEL: I remember when I went to the Cambodian border to go to Cambodia I saw in a refugee camp in Thailand sixty or seventy thousand refugees. But among them there was a group of some six hundred youngsters, teen-agers. And they were separate. And I looked at them and looked at them and looked at them, saying “What are they doing here?” And I was told, “They are not the victims. They were the Khmer Rouge.” Children. Teen-agers. They were conditioned to commit murder. And some killed their own parents. Well, it’s possible. That’s what worries me. Everything is possible. So we must see to it that it should not be possible. How? That’s the question.

DAVIDSON: Despite the recurring tragedies throughout the world, Wiesel creates hope in the future by teaching students to be sensitive to others.

WIESEL: Well, I try to teach them the dangers of indifference. That’s the least we can do. And I try to teach them not only by example as well as I can, as often as I can, but also in my daily life. I mean, why do we teach? If I teach Romeo and Juliet I try to tell them that their story is not a story of love but of hate. And to be around them indifferently looking at their tragedy is becoming an accomplice to death. I try to tell them that to be indifferent means to die before one dies. I try to tell them that to be indifferent deprives them of whatever is noble, beautiful, exciting, fascinating, sad, joyous, in life. So once you tell them that insensitivity can never be the option, it isn’t an option to a person who wants to live one’s life. I think they listen.

DAVIDSON: The suffering Wiesel and millions of others experienced during World War II led to the creation of the United Nations in 1946 and two years later, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

WIESEL: It’s a sacred document. It’s a sacred document because on one level it almost sounds utopian. But we know that Utopia, since 1516, we know that Utopia is a place that doesn’t exist. But it does exist in the document. And the fact that it has become a kind of bible for the secular religion which is the human rights. When you speak about being discouraged, of course I am. But I am encouraged when I think of the human rights organizations that exist in the world today. You have more than two thousand committees and organizations working all over the planet for human rights. We never had so much good will coming from simple people. Led by intellectuals always, not by politicians. Somehow politics and human rights may go together—may go together—but it depends who uses whom. If the Humanists use the politicians it’s good. If politicians use the Humanists, I’m not so sure it’s good. But the fact is that individuals now feel that they can make a difference in the lives of other individuals. So that is the value and the importance of the document. That fact that it’s being celebrated is something which gives me hope. It’s good.

It also means that it’s needed. It means that some people still need protection. Intervention. Sympathy. Solidarity. There are still people in prison. There are still victims of injustice all over the world and they need help.

DAVIDSON: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or UDHR as it is commonly know, is one of the basic documents of our times. It declares that all human beings, wherever they live and whoever they are, have rights that must be respected in all circumstances. Ferydon Hoveyda is the last living signer of the Universal Declaration. In 1948 he was in Paris where he’d been studying law, and was invited to join the Iranian delegation during the intense negotiations over the language in the UDHR.

HOVEYDA: World War II had a—contrary to World War I—had a sort of moral commitment on the part of the Allies because they were fighting Hitler. The Nazis. Racism. It was not only patriotism and nationalism as in World War I. And some people who were very much interested in human rights thought that this was the moment to create that. And I must say that two people, two my knowledge, were very active on this. Almost during the war, before the end of the war. One was Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt.

DAVIDSON: Yes. A very great woman.

HOVEYDA: Yeah. And the other was Professor Rene Cassin from France. Who obtained, before he died a few years ago, the Nobel Prize. So the fact that I knew Cassin also was another reason why I was involved in all this.

DAVIDSON: Invited on the delegation.

HOVEYDA: And I remember also Mrs. Roosevelt because I had never seen her and she was quite old in 1948. And my first impression I must confess was that I find her ugly. Not very attractive. But after listening to her defending the human rights a sort of glow came to her face and she became, I won’t say a pin-up, but she became very attractive.

DAVIDSON: It’s an interesting phenomenon, isn’t it?

HOVEYDA: Yeah, no, no—because she, she believed in what she was saying and that showed on her face and everything. And she, oh god, she was such a hard-working woman. She was always the first in the meetings and the last to leave. And now I say to everybody that without Mrs. Roosevelt and without Rene Cassin, the Universal Declaration would have not been adopted.

DAVIDSON: The behind the scenes negotiations at the conference were intense according to Ambassador Hoveyda, although the public pronouncements not nearly so rancorous as they can be today. Among those objecting in private to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were the Soviets.

HOVEYDA: They contended that this Declaration was too much based on capitalist values, not taking into account the masses. Taking into account the individual. Not the masses.

DAVIDSON: That it was too much focused on the individual rights and not on….

HOVEYDA: Yeah, yeah, yeah….

DAVIDSON: …group rights.

HOVEYDA: And the Communists were for the masses, for the people in general. Secondly you had the Third World countries, in general. Mostly they were colonies of the European industrialized countries. So they considered in private—oh this was not, they wouldn’t come in the open like that. But in private they will say, “This is a document which is colonialist in essence. These are the ideas of these people who are sucking our blood and having a good life. What is the importance to say that `we people have the right to a decent life?’ What does it mean here? It means nothing.”

The third group was the Muslims. The Muslim countries, they would see a contradiction between some of the articles in the declaration and the tenets of Islam. For example, about women.

DAVIDSON: Mmm hmm.

HOVEYDA: Saying that women are equal to men. Well, they would say, “But it contradicts the Koran. The Koran is the word of Allah. In the Koran women are not equal to men.” You know.

DAVIDSON: So this was objectionable.

HOVEYDA: So that was one objection. There was also an objection about slavery on the part of Saudi Arabia. But again, I said, they didn’t dare say it openly. South Africa also was against it because they had Apartheid.. You see. So you see these were, that was the atmosphere. But thanks to Mrs. Roosevelt’s and Rene Cassin, the thing went on. And I remember, I give you an example about myself. So I was in the seat of the Iranian delegate. I told my, the head of our delegation, I said, “Sir, I have written this report for you. I think that, I don’t know how to cope with this.” So he told me, “Look, we need the United States for our own protection and also for economic help. And the Americans are very much interested in passing this document. So we have to go along with them.” And I said, “What shall I do?” He said, “You keep silent in your seat. Don’t intervene. Don’t say a word. And for voting look at Mrs. Roosevelt.” [laughing]

DAVIDSON: If there were another gathering called today to create a Universal Declaration are there new articles that you think should be included today?

HOVEYDA: Well, you know, I considered that if this document had been presented to the United Nations now it wouldn’t have come out with so many rights for the individuals.

DAVIDSON: It would be a smaller document?

HOVEYDA: Yes. Less complete than it is. Why? For several reasons. First of all, there were only 60 members in the United Nations in 1948.

DAVIDSON: Yes, a third of what….

HOVEYDA: And there are almost 200 now.


HOVEYDA: So you see it makes it much more difficult to negotiate. But there is also another thing. This is this problem of multiculturalism. All these people asking to have, preserve their cultures. This is insane. Because parts of their cultures are backward. On that basis, Muslims, Asians, and others are claiming that, “Well, this document is very good. This is a general thing. But we have our own Declaration of Rights.” And I am completely against that because what in my opinion is very important in this document, it is called Universal. That creates a set of rules for everybody on the planet. This is, I compare it to the Ten Commandments brought back.

Yeah, so, so, and the third reason why we would have difficulties in voting something like that now inside the United Nations is that at that time, as I mentioned, the United States was the leading country in the UN. So the world war was over and the war had been won mainly thanks to United States’ efforts. And everybody needed United States for reconstruction and everything. So United States had a great influence which it has not now.

DAVIDSON: Unfortunately, gross violations of human rights have continued to occur regularly over the last half-century. Elie Wiesel mentioned Cambodia. And look at the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia; genocide in Rwanda; and the on-going oppression of indigenous peoples throughout the world. Rigoberta Menchu is a Mayan Indian from Guatemala who lost most of her family during the decades-long civil war in her country, that only recently ended. Menchu won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in bringing world attention to the plight of Guatemala’s Mayan people, who were often the targets of savage genocidal campaigns. Still, Menchu chooses to look forward and see the promise of a better future through the application of documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

RIGOBERTA MENCHU [speaking via a translator]: I believe that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a goal. It is a goal that has still not been achieved and one that we must work toward. We must respect the fundamental rights of humanity. I believe that the Declaration continues to be an inspiration that we can all live together. Much of the discussion about human rights has taken place at the institutional level. The United Nations in particular has produced a lot of literature. But there is an immense difference in the level of rights that people enjoy. There are still more than fifty armed conflicts in the world that produce a lot of human suffering. Most of the wealth is in a few hands. The level of poverty in the world is very distressing. The proposition that everybody is equal and has the same rights in the world has not yet been achieved.

So I think that the major contribution of the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be a critical reflection. It should be an analysis of the present situation facing much of humanity. It should also recognize that the solutions to the problems are in everybody’s hands: men and women. The solution is not only in the hands of institutions.

So I am also here to contribute to that reflection. I can’t be optimistic about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because I know there are more and more kids living on the streets. I know of a lot of human rights violations in the world. But the hope of humanity is to renew this Declaration and put it into practice.

DAVIDSON: We’ll pause here for a short break and when we return we’ll continue this retrospective on the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You’re listening to Common Ground, a program on world affairs sponsored by the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that works to promote thought and dialogue on world affairs. The Stanley Foundation publishes the monthly magazine World Press Review, a digest of articles and opinion pieces from the international press. Transcripts and cassettes of Common Ground programs are available. I’ll give you details on how to order the end of the program.

There are anniversary events taking place throughout the world to honor the achievements of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose official birthday is December 10th. One American university has chosen to celebrate the Universal Declaration with a year-long series of events. Burns Weston of The University of Iowa College of Law is the principal organizer of this celebration, which has brought all of my guests today to the University’s Midwest campus. Weston, who wrote The Encyclopedia Britannica‘s section on Human Rights, feels that Americans need to understand the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the relevance to their own lives.

WESTON: Part of the difficulty of explaining, I mean one can speak definitionally and say, “This is what human rights are,” and we can point to the first ten amendments, our Bill of Rights to our own constitution, and say, “These are in fact statements about at least a certain part of what we call human rights, civil and political rights.” And Americans will understand that. But they won’t understand that human rights covers a broad spectrum of issues, not just civil and political, but economic, social, and cultural issues. And that’s not a part of our political heritage. We have an extraordinarily strong—I would say excessive—commitment to individualistic notions of governance. And as a consequence we tend to shy away in this country from embracing concepts of human rights that require community participation. And so that is one reason why it’s hard to explain this to Americans.

It’s also the way, another reason is because the way our government treats human rights worldwide. We’re very willing to point the finger at other countries and very willing to accuse them of all sorts of violations of one sort or another, but almost never look at our own record. And when we do get involved internationally we do so only in the most hesitant and timorous kinds of ways. Such that when the United States, if it does get behind, let’s say a new human rights treaty of some sort, we attach all sorts of reservations and qualifications that prevent the applications of those treaties as a matter of law in the United States. So that most Americans, for example unlike Europeans who live under the European human rights system, most Americans aren’t even remotely aware that these treaties could have utility for them if only our political structure and our legal structure will allow them to have applicability in the United States. We have, in this country, simply failed to make human rights, as internationally defined and practice, a part of our own everyday lives. And that’s a consequence of the failure of our political and legal institutions to allow that to happen. We still continue to believe in a kind of a fortress America. And it prevents that from taking place.

DAVIDSON: The University of Iowa, Weston says, has two primary purposes in its celebrations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

WESTON: It is on the one hand to commemorate probably one of the most important and influential instruments of the last half-century, perhaps with the exception of the United Nations Charter and perhaps with the exception of the World Trade Organization agreements, there is no other—well, also perhaps with the exception of the North Atlantic Alliance Act—there’s probably no other international instrument that has had as profound an influence on human affairs worldwide. And when it has its fiftieth birthday it seems like we ought to take notice of that fact. That’s point one.

Point two, it seems to me is that you use this moment for calling attention in a serious and concentrated way to human suffering worldwide. And to exploring the ways in which we are able and unable to alleviate that suffering. I think that’s, that is and should be the primary purpose in fact.

DAVIDSON: Most people may be unaware that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights even exists, but there are many people in the world who have given their lives to defend the ideas contained in it. Wei Jinsheng is a Chinese dissident who was imprisoned for fifteen years because he spoke out against the regimes that violated the rights of the Chinese people. Today, Wei Jinsheng lives in exile in the United States.

WEI JENSHENG [speaking via a translator]: This is partly a question of history. Over the past fifty years the perceptions and concerns over human rights among the world population have increased dramatically. And I believe that this is directly tied to the existence of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and also the work that has sprung out of it. The other question is a question of the future. Over the past fifty years the perceptions have increased dramatically, but I still believe that there is a lot that can be done. For example, I believe that the present governments of the world are at a crucial stage in deciding to push the human rights agenda or to shelve the human rights agenda. I believe that the people of the world would like to see human rights continue to be a high profile issue. And I believe that the governments are, at this time, facing an important decision.

DAVIDSON: Because Americans take so many rights for granted, Wei Jinsheng says Chinese people tend to be much more aware of what human rights mean.

JENSHENG [speaking via a translator]: It’s difficult to convince the people that after they have obtained something to remind them of the importance of that thing. But I have to talk to Americans to remind them that for a great deal of the world’s population they have not yet obtained the level of rights that Americans presently have. And that this is for those individuals who do not have it, it’s still an extremely important fight. It is precisely because of this that the Chinese Communists believe that America is their most dangerous example.

DAVIDSON: Just one final question. Is the world a better place because of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

HOVEYDA: Absolutely. Absolutely. What, I cannot say that everything is perfect in the world. Far from that and we are not. But it is a better place because, because you see that many, many people whose rights were abused are getting back their rights. And that started in developed countries and it spreads slowly but steadily in other countries. Even in Iran now the mullahs are very upset with, that this list of terrorist governments etc., or Amnesty International’s report every year about Iran and other countries. I know, I know that people like Saddam Hussein and others continue to kill and to repress their own people. But they will account of it one day.

DAVIDSON: Ferydon Hoveyda has been my guest on Common Ground. Fifty years ago he signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10th. 1948. Hoveyda was one of many participants helping The University of Iowa celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the UDHR. My other guests were Burns Weston, a Professor of Law and coordinator of The University of Iowa’s celebration; Wei Jinsheng, a Chinese dissident now living in exile in the United States; Rigoberta Menchu, a Mayan Indian from Guatemala and 1992 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize; and Elie Wiesel, a Jewish Holocaust survivor and 1986 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. For Common Ground I’m Mary Gray Davidson.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security