The “genesis” of human rights was religious. Yet, paradoxically, religion has motivated some of the greatest violations to these very rights throughout human history. The two are thus inextricably connected. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights debated by the newly created United Nations, was intended as a new beginning against the backdrop of the Holocaust and World War II. The omission of reference to God in the UDHR was significant in framing the modern understanding of religious freedom and human rights as secular. The debate exposed the fallacy of invoking ‘a’ God to protect religious freedom, since freedom of religion requires freedom from dominance by any single religion, an idea with particular resonance in a post-colonial international forum. Despite the irony that the genesis of the idea of inalienable ‘human rights’ was historically tied to religious doctrine, the exclusion of a “God clause” served to protect religious freedom, promote secularism, entrench the merit of a division of Church and State, and ensure that the UDHR would be “universally” accepted.
Brazil’s proposed amendment to Article 1 to adopt an expressed reference to God, and an overt articulation of Christian theology sparked debate. The proposal read that, “Created in the image and likeness of God, [individuals] are endowed with reason and conscience, and should act towards one another in brotherhood” (3rd Session, Oct. 7, 1). Precedents of this statement include the American Declaration of Independence, according to which the United States of America is a nation founded on freedom, as well as a refuge for the religiously persecuted. Reinforcing Brazil’s proposal, Bolivia contended that an explicit mention of God was imperative since “the idea of God was not a debatable theological doctrine, but a positive reality,” (98th Meeting, Oct. 9, 6). Further, Argentina proposed that the inclusion of ‘God’ was intended to underscore the inalienable nature of human rights solely to ensure a wide interpretation (98th Meeting, Oct. 9, 2). The Netherlands attempted to bring in God indirectly by tinkering with the wording of the preamble, proposing instead, “the religion existing between the Creator and man,” (165th Meeting, Nov. 30, 2) and suggesting that non-believers could simply ‘discard the phrase.’
However, as a selective approach to the instrument, article 1 would endanger the clout of the whole Declaration, as noted by Poland (165th Meeting, Nov. 30, 5-6). The positions of these delegations demonstrate recognition of the historical linkage between human rights and religious doctrine. Nevertheless, international adoption of a direct reference to a particular God or Creator was rejected by the General Assembly on the basis that not all nations shared the same beliefs.
Those who rejected these proposed amendments placed secularism at the forefront of international human rights law and worked to carve out a morality and justice distinct from, and independent of, religious strictures (Introduction, 09/01/12). Human rights advocate John Humphrey explained that secularity was crucial to the Declaration’s universality (John Humphrey and the UDHR, 06/02/12). Epitomizing this idea, the Indian delegation explained that as a “secular State, in which numerous creeds, ranging from animism to atheism were practiced,” the Declaration ought not to be “dogmatic,” (165th Meeting, Nov. 30, 8) effectively adopting Gandhi’s perspective that all people have rights, not only Christians (Introduction, 09/01/12).
The division of Church and State was seen as central to secularism and to the protection of minorities from religious domination. The USSR argued that the proposal from the Netherlands would violate this separation, which many countries had enshrined, and was inappropriate in a secular organization. Additionally, the USSR delegate opposed the Brazilian amendment on the basis that it was not representative of the viewpoints of all nations, and was not forward looking, “to try to force one’s own faith or philosophy upon others would be to revert to concepts current at the time of the Crusades” (98th Meeting, Oct 9. 4). These opponents each argued strenuously for a secular declaration that could promote human rights everywhere for everyone, and would thus be distinct from the religiously informed Western colonial concept of human rights based on Christian thought and reflective of the impact of diverse stakeholders.
Charles Taylor’s theory of “secularism as management of diversity,” (20th Century Developments, 10/01/12) proves apt when considering the UN as a pluralistic body. The French, as cultivators of the iconic “liberty, equality and fraternity” model, and of the Age of Reason (98th Meeting, Oct. 9, 6), resolved the debate by a motion to append the term “universal.” This term “managed” diversity because it could elevate human rights in a way evocative of the divine or natural law paradigms of Western philosophers, such as Hobbes. As a term taken from the Genesis, it had appeal to all monotheists. It was also consistent with Buddhist thought, which is rooted in “universal truths” (Grand Narratives of Religion & Human Rights, 11/01/12), and with Hindu beliefs in “transcendence,” referring to the aspect of God’s nature and power which is independent from the material universe, but was at the same time appealing to Atheist because of its neutrality. This proved a great point of compromise, as it served to prioritize the declaration without any reference to God, which had offended some states and arguably violated some of their constitutional principles. The genius of the “universal” adjective was that it meant different things to different people. The member states could all see in it something inspiring that they could each identify with.
In conclusion, the significance of the UN debate surrounding the adoption of the UDHR is that it elucidated the issues at the heart of the legitimacy of international norms in matters of private conscience by questioning the validity of identifying one religious tradition in public international law. The debate was resolved in favour of sanctioning secularity and adopting the concept of a separation of Church and State as the surest way to protect individual rights, arriving at a “universal” “one size fits all” declaration.
The exclusion of a God clause from the UDHR was necessary to achieve a consensus, and is understood when viewed against the backdrop of religiously motivated genocide, the diverse stakeholders involved in the creation of international law clauses, and the collapse of colonialism and its imposition of dominant western beliefs. The UDHR is thus a seminal document comparable in significance to the Magna Carta in 1215, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789 (Grand Narratives of Religion & Human Rights, 11/01/12). Yet, the impact is wider because the purview itself is wider, applying to, and acceptable to, all people of all backgrounds and all beliefs, and therefore is truly universal. As described by Eleanor Roosevelt, the UDHR is the Magna Carta for all humanity (John Humphrey and the UDHR, 06/02/12).