In January 1947 sixty-year-old René Cassin, Vice-President of the French Conseil d’État and official French delegate to the newly created United Nations Human Rights Commission, arrived in New York from Paris. That commission was to define and implement a postwar international regime of rights, beginning with the drafting of a human rights document that might become internationally binding. Cassin’s mood was less than propitious. The Atlantic had been rough and delayed him. Added to the bitter cold was the isolated locale of his international adventure; the UN had moved its provisional administrative headquarters to the relatively isolated village setting of Lake Success, in upstate New York. His general dissatisfaction was only exacerbated when he discovered that the commission’s chair, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the former president, had no Europeans on her team of drafters, an omission he regarded as ‘symbolic’. Instead, at her side there stood ‘two philosophers, M[onsieur] Chang, Chinese, vice-president, and M[onsieur] Malik, Lebanese, rapporteur’. From Cassin’s perspective there was worse in store. French had been demoted to an auxiliary language at the meeting, and he felt his own contribution to the discussions was incapacitated by the simultaneous translation process, which matched the French concept les droits de l’homme (literally, ‘the rights of man’) with the English ‘human rights’.
The question of cultural relativism has been long at the heart of the historiography of the international programme of human rights introduced in the aftermath of the Second World War. Overall, historians have tended to characterize the universalism of this programme as a European ambition that stood in sharp contrast to an inevitable position of cultural relativism taken up by contemporary anti-colonialists. Ironically, the story of Cassin’sattachment to les droits de l’homme and his distress at the marginalization of Europeans and the French language offer evidence against this reductive characterization. Cassin was also the drafter who ‘spent the post-adoption years interpreting the Declaration to the larger world, almost always stressing the theme of universality’. In his role as a drafter of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he proposed appointing individuals rather than nation-state delegates to the Human Rights Commission. Although unsuccessful, his efforts helped sustain a vision of an international organization not only represented by individuals but also representing them. Cassin also supported, against the majority, the right of petition over and above the rights of state representation to the UN. Unusually for a man in high national office, he defended the inclusion in the postwar French Constitution of a clause allowing the abrogation of French national sovereignty in the interests of established international principles. His imprint is also obvious in the Universal Declaration’s invocation of the equality of all individuals as members of ‘the human family’.