Perspectives Daily

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70

Mark Philip Bradley | Dec 10, 2018

When an American president believes in torture, in banning Muslims, and in putting the children of immigrants in cages, it is a dark moment to observe the 70th anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the United States. Do Americans still remember the aspirations embedded in that revolutionary document? Can the values and transformative political projects that drove the human rights moment of the 1940s be recovered and repurposed 70 years on?

At the UNESCO exhibition to mark the first anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Musée Galliéra, Paris, October 1949.

At the UNESCO exhibition to mark the first anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Musée Galliéra, Paris, October 1949. The Human Rights Exhibition Project/CC BY-NC-ND

In fact, in the very moment of its creation the framers of the Universal Declaration worried how it might be received. So much so that just a year after its adoption the United Nations Educational Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) opened a massive public exhibition to celebrate “mankind’s age-old fight for freedom” on October 1, 1949, at the Musée Galliéra in Paris. In retrospect, what was most striking about the UNESCO exhibition was the apparent need by its organizers to teach visitors what human rights actually were and to inculcate in them a shared obligation to bring human rights to life. The exhibition’s primary purpose was a didactic one, making visible what the organizers termed “the universal nature of the responsibility for achieving and defending human rights.”

Visitors to the UNESCO exhibition first encountered a small planetarium in a darkened room. Through its windows they saw the Earth turning in space with its political divisions symbolically left unmarked while listening to a recorded voice that read from the first three articles of the Universal Declaration with its promises that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Adjacent to Earth, the exhibitors had placed a small drawing of Adam and Eve frolicking under the apple tree to lay down a marker for their vision of human rights as rooted in an almost timeless past.

Exiting the planetarium, visitors strolled through a hallway of illustrated panels and panoramas that depicted “man’s slow emancipation” from prehistoric times to the present to “illustrate the contribution of all peoples, nations and civilizations to the sum total of Human Rights.” Panels depicting the Rights of Man through the Ages presented the Magna Carta, the American Declaration of Independence, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man while Fighters for Freedom featured such figures as Montesquieu, Abraham Lincoln, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Mahatma Gandhi, in what was a rare bow in the exhibition to non-Western genealogies of human rights.

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech, 1943.

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech, 1943. Wikimedia Commons

Visitors next entered several rooms that offered a pictorial “history book” of the 1930s to demonstrate “how rights were abused and violated by totalitarian states.” This state of affairs, the exhibit claimed, led to the outbreak of the World War II and to “democratic states” working “to re-assert rights” through the establishment of the United Nations.

They then passed into a hall in which a dozen pillars devoted to the 30 articles of the 1948 Universal Declaration illustrated past examples of their protections and violations and reminded viewers of the centrality of the declaration in the “struggle for human rights.” The final room was “devoted to the duties each person must fulfill if Human Rights are to become and remain a reality for all.” That pressing task, organizers told visitors as they were leaving the exhibition “will only be complete when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been converted into fact.”[i]

The exhibition traveled to other sites in western Europe and Latin America in the early 1950s. To further extend its circulation, UNESCO organizers packaged a kind of pop-up exhibit for public distribution, reproducing photographs of key parts of the Paris exhibition and their captions in book form with detachable plates to encourage local groups throughout the world to mount their own mini-didactic exhibits.[ii]

The pedagogic narrative of human rights history in the UNESCO exhibition was mainly a fiction. Even beyond the imagined reach of the human rights past to the biblical times of Adam and Eve, its insistence on a linear, progressive, and largely Western history across time and space elided the astonishing singularity of the turn to human rights in the global north and south of the 1940s. Concerns about rights of course have a long history that can be traced to the early modern world if not before. Rights talk was central to the French, American, and Haitian revolutions. The anti-slavery movement and rise of 19th-century humanitarian practices opened up new forms of transnational empathy. The collective rights of minority peoples also began to attract international attention.

But the articulation of global human rights in the 1940s was something altogether different. The unprecedented guarantees they offered beyond the confines of the nation-state to universal political, civil, economic, and social rights for everyone fundamentally challenged dominant understandings of the relationships between individuals, states, and the world community. The visions of rights that infused the Universal Declaration were a historical novelty to visitors to the UNESCO exhibition in 1949. They required unpacking.

For Freedom's transformation of Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech featuring Rosario Dawson, Isabella Margarita Dawson, Luke Wessman, Hank Willis Thomas, Azita Ardakani, Cynthia Ruffin, Griselda Sanchez, Michele Pred, Asma Men, and Gray Wolf.

For Freedom's transformation of Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech featuring Rosario Dawson, Isabella Margarita Dawson, Luke Wessman, Hank Willis Thomas, Azita Ardakani, Cynthia Ruffin, Griselda Sanchez, Michele Pred, Asma Men, and Gray Wolf. Photo by For Freedoms in collaboration with Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur.

Sixty-nine years later, we are painfully aware that the aspirational promises of the Universal Declaration remain in the process of becoming. But once again visual embodiments of rights talk can help us understand the kind of work the declaration might do today. Earlier this year the conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas and photographer Emily Shur decided to reimagine another iconic 1940s rights moment, a series of prints by Norman Rockwell illustrating President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms that were a ubiquitous presence in World War II America. In them white Americans became the signifiers for freedom of speech and worship and freedom from fear and want. Like the UNESCO exhibition, rights talk emerges in Rockwell’s prints as a Eurocentric and Judeo-Christian discourse. Thomas and Shur offer a more capacious rendering that enlarges our vision of the stakes for making claims in the United States for the protection of rights and freedoms in these days.

Over an intense weekend in Los Angeles last January, Thomas and Shur curated a set of counter-tableaus, with the rapper Chuck D, the cofounder of the United Farm Workers Dolores Huerta, and the actress Rosario Dawson among others showing up for the photo shoot. In them the right to freedom of speech in early 21st-century America, for instance, looks and feels very different than it did in 1943. Moreover, the urgency of its protection is now no longer a threat from distant German Nazis but from white nationalists at home, including President Trump. Together these tableaus offer a resonant and expansive lens for marking this 70th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration. They help us see how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can speak to the concerns of the present moment. Just as the 1949 UNESCO exhibition at the Musée Galliéra worked on its viewers, the transformative reimaginings of the very meanings of human rights by Thomas and Shur remind us that our better selves still have the power to instruct.

[i] “Universal Rights: UNESCO Exhibition Open in Paris,” UNESCO Courier 2, no. 9 (October 1, 1949): 5, 7.

[ii] The pop-up exhibition is contained in A Short History of Human Rights (Paris: UNESCO, 1950). On more contemporary efforts to reconstruct the Paris exhibition see http://www.exhibithumanrights.org.


Mark Philip Bradley is the Bernadotte E. Schmitt Distinguished Service Professor of History at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The World Reimagined: Americans and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 2016) and is currently working on a history of the global South.


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