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Human Rights Quarterly 23.1 (2001) 44-72

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Universalizing Human Rights: The Role of Small States in the Construction of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Susan Waltz

I. Introduction

In the fifty years that have passed since the United Nations General Assembly approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1 literally hundreds of books on the subject of human rights have come to fill the shelves of major university libraries in the United States and around the world. Human rights has claimed the attention of scholars in several disciplines, and the notion is alternatively approached as a philosophical idea, a legal concept, or a political project. Human rights readily finds a home in Western political philosophy, where theories of natural rights and social contract are well-anchored and help elaborate the modern concept of human rights. This concept has also been discussed in comparative philosophical frameworks. 2 Human rights as a legal concept is part of the bedrock of contemporary international law, and neither legal scholarship [End Page 44] nor discussion of the international implementation mechanisms (and their flaws) is wanting. The study of international human rights as a political project, however, has been relatively neglected. A political project refers to concerted efforts to build a public and worldwide consensus around the idea of human rights, including political strategies, diplomatic initiatives, agreement of explicit principles, and conclusion of an international accord. 3 The field of international relations is the most natural disciplinary home for such inquiry, but until the 1970s, the paradigmatic attachment to the notion of sovereignty excluded virtually all treatment of human rights. Scholars in international relations tended to view concern with human rights as a matter of domestic governance, and thus out of their domain. It was only with discussions of transnationalism, international regimes, and the limits to political realism that human rights began its slow creep into that literature. 4 Political analyses of international human rights began to appear in the late 1980s, and today they are complemented by a growing body of writings about the construction of international human rights as a political project. 5

As this article will demonstrate, recent scholarship on the political origins of the Universal Declaration has proved enlightening. Efforts to account for both inspiration and political motivation have taken several scholars deep into archives, and in the process several forgotten or obscured facts have been unearthed. As the erstwhile unproblematic history of the UDHR has been reconstructed, it has become more complex, and more nuanced. One of the subtle but powerful truths to emerge is that no single, straightforward story about the origins, shape, and content of the International Bill of Rights can be told. 6 [End Page 45]

This article focuses on the little known story of the contribution of small states. To orient readers, it begins with a review of the familiar accounts, the scholarship at our disposal, and the historical treatment that gave rise to the UDHR. Four distinct roles of small states are then discussed. In the most minimal role, small state delegations bore witness to the proceedings that produced the text of the UDHR; their representatives also participated actively in the debates. Delegates from certain small powers accepted vital leadership roles; on some issues they fought hard to see their concerns reflected in the final text. After this systematic review of the contributions of small states, the article concludes with reflections on the complex history of the UDHR, some cautions about overemphasizing the role of hegemonic states, and speculation as to how the document we have inherited might have been different without the participation of small states.

II. Familiar Accounts and Less Familiar Scholarship: A Review

The historical account of the UDHR best known in the United States begins with the Roosevelts. 7 In his 1941 State of the Union address to Congress, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered the well-known Four Freedoms speech, 8 providing a rhetorical touchstone for many who subsequently took up the cause. So influential was the notion of "fundamental...


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