The Legacy of P.C. Chang and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Hans-Ingvar-fotoHans Ingvar Roth is Professor of Human Rights at Stockholm University, and he has previously worked as Human Rights Officer for OSCE in Bosnia and as senior advisor at the Ministry of Justice in Stockholm. He has written extensively on human rights, minority rights and multiculturalism. In today's post, he summarizes his new book P. C. Chang and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the occasion of the impending anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10th.

Next week marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and never before has it been so important to stress the great importance of the human rights elaborated in the Declaration. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one of the world’s best-known and most translated documents. When it was presented to the UN General Assembly in December in 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the writing group, called it a new “Magna Carta for all mankind.” The passage of time has shown Roosevelt to have been largely correct in her prediction as to the Declaration’s importance. No other document in the world today can claim a comparable standing in the international community.

Roosevelt and French legal expert René Cassin have often been presented as the principal authors of the UN Declaration. In fact, it resulted from a collaborative effort involving a number of individuals in different capacities. One of its most important authors was the vice chairman of the Human Rights Commission, Peng Chun Chang (1892–1957)—a Chinese diplomat and philosopher whose contribution has been the focus of growing attention in recent years. Indeed, it is Chang who deserves the credit for the universality and religious neutrality that are now regarded as the Declaration’s defining features. Chang often stated that human rights are for everyone, not just Western people. Despite the importance of Chang’s work, his extraordinary contribution was overlooked for many years by historians of the Declaration.

15890 (1)Peng Chun Chang was a modern-day Renaissance man with many strings to his bow—teacher, university professor, playwright, director, and diplomat. A true cosmopolitan, he was deeply involved in the cultural exchange between East and West, and the dramatic events of his life left a profound mark upon his intellectual and political work. P.C. Chang and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the first biography of this extraordinary actor upon the world stage. Drawing upon previously unknown sources, it casts new light upon Chang’s multifaceted life and involvement with one of history’s most important documents.

For several years, I have been very interested in the drafting process of the Universal Declaration. More and more, I became engaged in the question of how the drafters and the human rights commission managed to solve stalemates and find unity in spite of deep ideological disagreements. I found that one person in particular, P.C. Chang, showed a remarkable ability in finding compromises and constructive solutions. My interest in P.C. Chang increased when I learned more about his dramatic life. The book project took also an unexpected turn when I got to know Chang’s youngest son, who gave me a lot of information about his father. I was also surprised that no one had written an intellectual biography on Chang. My hope is that my book can make Chang more well-known in the world and that he can receive the recognition that he deserves, as he was one of the most important drafters of the Universal Declaration, and his cosmopolitan life was very fascinating.

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