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Reviewed by:
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Commentary
  • Johannes Morsink
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Commentary, Asbjørn Eide, Gudmundur Alfredsson, Goran Melander, Lars Adam Rehof and Allan Rosas, eds. with collaboration of Theresa Swinehart, Scandinavian University Press and Oxford University Press.

This volume is a collection of thirty-one essays by almost as many different authors, roughly one for each of the thirty-one articles of the Declaration. All the contributors are from Scandinavia and all are involved in human rights work in their own countries either as law professors, members of research institutes, advisors to their governments or they work on the European and United Nations level of the movement. The editors asked their contributors to include at least three things in their commentaries: (1) to bring in the historical background of “their” article and describe the contexts in which the right might previously have been promulgated; (2) to discuss the drafting history of the article within the UN hierarchy, commonly referred as the travaux preparatoires; and (3) to relate subsequent normative developments having to do with standard setting and implementation activities that have grown out of the Declaration. As is to be expected, different commentators had different strengths in each of these three areas and their commentaries reflect this fact. Similarly, this reviewer’s expertise in just one of these areas (the drafting history) has shaped this review.

The uniqueness of this commentary lies in the fact that it is the first book in English that seeks to bring together these three aspects of the Declaration which are often treated separately in the human rights literature. Robinson 1 and Verdoodt 2 have mostly reported on how the various articles of the Declaration moved through the drafting stages within the United Nations and on which delegates said what, and when. In the second half of his 1976 study, Philippe De La Chapelle 3 gave the same kinds of summaries of the minutes as did Robinson and Verdoodt, except that in the first half of his study he focused on Western intellectual history, often through Catholic pieces, but with plenty of information for anyone interested in the intellectual roots of the Declaration. A much narrower focus can be found in a 1966 Muslim commentary on the Declaration. 4 All four of these books are commentaries on the text of the Declaration, with the De La Chapelle giving us the most by way of historical precedents. [End Page 398] However, to really understand the Declaration, the reader needs to go to books or essays in international law that treat the subject of the particular right or rights in question. No one volume for this sort of thing exists. The editors sought to fill this gap, but unfortunately their contributors on the whole ignored this part of their assignment and De La Chappelle’s pioneering work is nowhere mentioned or used, let alone improved upon. However, the reader will find helpful historical comments on the abolition of slavery (Article 3) and on the development of the right to work (Article 23).

We can evaluate the contributors’ acquittal of their second task in terms of how deeply each of them researched the UN archives. From conception to proclamation the Declaration passed through at least eight stages within the UN hierarchy. The commentators on Articles 13, 14, 16, 19, 20, and 27 made almost no reference to any aspects of the drafting history of their article. Others relied on Robinson and Verdoodt to give the reader a sense of why and how the article was written. Verdoodt’s book, for instance, is the main source for the comments on the drafting history of articles 8, 10, 16 (Robinson too), 23, 24, and 29. Because Verdoodt was an accurate commentator and because his study was done in French and is out of print now, the present volume serves the useful function of making Verdoodt’s results available again and in English. The drawback is that we do not gain in depth of understanding and in at least one instance are set on a wrong path. After correctly reporting on what Verdoodt said on the drafting history of Article 29 (which...

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pp. 398-402
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