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Indivisible Human Rights

A History

By Daniel J. Whelan

Publication Year: 2010

Human rights activists frequently claim that human rights are indivisible, and the United Nations has declared the indivisibility, interdependency, and interrelatedness of these rights to be beyond dispute. Yet in practice a significant divide remains between the two grand categories of human rights: civil and political rights, on the one hand, and economic, social, and cultural rights on the other. To date, few scholars have critically examined how the notion of indivisibility has shaped the complex relationship between these two sets of rights.

In Indivisible Human Rights, Daniel J. Whelan offers a carefully crafted account of the rhetoric of indivisibility. Whelan traces the political and historical development of the concept, which originated in the contentious debates surrounding the translation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into binding treaty law as two separate Covenants on Human Rights. In the 1960s and 1970s, Whelan demonstrates, postcolonial states employed a revisionist rhetoric of indivisibility to elevate economic and social rights over civil and political rights, eventually resulting in the declaration of a right to development. By the 1990s, the rhetoric of indivisibility had shifted to emphasize restoration of the fundamental unity of human rights and reaffirm the obligation of states to uphold both major human rights categories—thus opening the door to charges of violations resulting from underdevelopment and poverty.

As Indivisible Human Rights illustrates, the rhetoric of indivisibility has frequently been used to further political ends that have little to do with promoting the rights of the individual. Drawing on scores of original documents, many of them long forgotten, Whelan lets the players in this drama speak for themselves, revealing the conflicts and compromises behind a half century of human rights discourse. Indivisible Human Rights will be welcomed by scholars and practitioners seeking a deeper understanding of the complexities surrounding the realization of human rights.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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Chapter 1: Indivisible, Interdependent, and Interrelated Human Rights

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pp. 1-10

It is often said that all human rights are “indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated.” This tripartite formulation is taken as given. In recent years, the United Nations has boldly declared that the indivisibility, interdependency, and interrelatedness of human rights is “beyond dispute.” This is an interesting claim, considering that this book explores the unsettled and contested nature of the indivisibility of especially the...

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Chapter 2: Antecedents of the Universal Declaration

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pp. 11-31

Any history of indivisible human rights would be impossible to convey without exploring the centrality of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to that history. The contemporary rhetoric of indivisibility draws significant normative support from the organic unity of the Universal Declaration—that it includes civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights while drawing no explicit distinctions between these categories (although they are there). Johannes Morsink argues that the...

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Chapter 3: International Guarantees and State Responsibility before the Universal Declaration

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pp. 32-58

While both this chapter and the previous one examine the genealogical antecedents of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, each explores a different dimension of the same question. The central question explored in Chapter 2 was how various bills of rights related economic and social rights to civil and political rights within a catalogue of rights...

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Chapter 4: From Declaration to Covenant

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pp. 59-86

When the Commission on Human Rights was established by the U.N. Economic and Social Council on February 16, 1946, its first order of business was to draft an international bill of rights.1 As originally conceived, this bill was to include a declaration of principles, a legally binding convention, and measures of implementation. By 1947, the Commission...

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Chapter 5: Including Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

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pp. 87-111

In Chapter 3, I offered a variety of views—our received wisdom—about the West and its position on economic, social, and cultural rights. Despite significant evidence pointing to more nuanced interpretations about this question, this debate continues.1 Was the United States really opposed to economic, social, and cultural rights? A review of internal U.S. State Department memoranda and instructions that would be sent...

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Chapter 6: Division of the Covenant

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pp. 112-135

The story of the Covenants so far has been about the decision to include, and the process of including, economic, social, and cultural rights alongside civil rights in a single, legally binding treaty. The seventh session of the Commission on Human Rights in 1951 devoted nearly all of its time drafting substantive—yet generally worded—articles on economic, social, and cultural rights, and a system of self-reported supervision for the...

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Chapter 7: Indivisibility as Postcolonial Revisionism: 1952–1968

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pp. 136-154

The adoption of General Assembly Resolution 543 (VI) in 1952 closed a very important chapter in the history of human rights in the United Nations. The debates surrounding the manner in which the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be translated into the legally binding obligations of states revealed in many ways how different...

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Chapter 8: Indivisibility as Economic Justice: 1968–1986

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pp. 155-175

By the 1970s, the aspirations of the 1960s that emerged in U.N. discourse, attaching interstate political and economic justice goals to human rights, increasingly became demands during the 1970s, starting with the New International Economic Order. As discussed in Chapter 7, the rhetoric of indivisibility was deployed to prioritize economic, social, and cultural rights over civil and political rights, and the only way...

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Chapter 9: Indivisibility as Restoration: 1986–2009

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pp. 176-206

In February 2009, Moses Moskowitz died at the age of eighty. For decades he had been the Secretary-General of the Consultative Council of Jewish Organizations (an NGO observer at the U.N.) and was closely involved in the development of human rights at the United Nations from its earliest days. In 1958, he wrote one of the first comprehensive...

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Chapter 10: Indivisible Human Rights: Past and Future

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pp. 207-214

As we have seen, the concept of indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated human rights has had a rich and deep history. The terms have been used by diplomats, activists, scholars, and advocates to both describe and explain something about the nature of human rights themselves and the relationships between the two grand categories of rights...

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Appendix. Covenants on Human Rights: Drafting Procedures and Timeline

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pp. 215-217

During the time period covered in Chapters 4–6, the U.N. calendar was based on the convening of the General Assembly in the fall of any particular year. This meant that the work of the main bodies of the U.N. and their subsidiaries—in this case, the Economic and Social Council and the Commission on Human Rights—needed to be completed in advance of the opening session of the General Assembly. The Commission...


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pp. 219-259


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pp. 260-262


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pp. 263-269

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p. 270-270

The help, advice, and guidance of many people animate this work. I would like to thank especially Jack Donnelly, David Levine, and Nicholas Onuf for inspiring me and extending to me enormous patience as I let the project simmer and stew. Several colleagues at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies, especially Tom Farer, Frank Laird, Micheline Ishay, Alan Gilbert, and George DeMartino...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812205404
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812242409

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights