The Spiritual Sources of Human Rights Law



Section two of thirteen of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s 2018 peace proposal, “Toward an Era of Human Rights: Building a People’s Movement.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, who oversaw the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with a poster of the declaration [Photo by UN Photo/CC BY-NC-ND]

The first theme I would like to stress is that at the heart of human rights is the vow never to allow anyone else to suffer what one has endured.

Last year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres created the new post of Special Representative for International Migration to address issues related to refugees and migrants. Today, with some 258 million migrants in the world and an ever-growing number of refugees, the foregrounding of negative stereotypes—that such people are either a burden or a threat—is fueling a climate of social exclusion.

Louise Arbour, the first person to hold this post, has stated:

“One of the things we need to highlight is the need for migrants, like everybody else, to have their fundamental human rights respected and protected without discrimination on the basis of their status.”

This understanding must serve as the foundation for resolving the migration and refugee crisis.

As the history of the twentieth century with its two world wars illustrates, the incitement of contempt and enmity toward certain groups of people can result in tragedy on an unimaginable scale. The UDHR, adopted in December 1948, three years after the UN’s founding, was a crystallization of the wisdom gained from those bitter lessons. It is vital, then, that we once again affirm the spirit of the Declaration in order to find a resolution to the various human rights issues we face today, including discrimination against migrants and refugees.

In June 1993, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. John P. Humphrey (1905–95), who helped draft the Declaration in his capacity as the first director of the UN Human Rights Division. In discussing the significance of the UDHR, Dr. Humphrey spoke movingly of his personal life experiences and the discriminatory treatment he had experienced.

Born in Canada, Dr. Humphrey was touched by tragedy from a young age, losing both his parents to illness. He also suffered a grievous injury in a fire that resulted in the loss of his arm. Separated from his siblings, he attended a boarding school where he was repeatedly tormented by other students. The Great Depression struck soon after Dr. Humphrey’s graduation from university and just one month after his marriage to his wife. Although he managed to stay employed, he was pained at the sight of the multitudes of jobless around him. He also witnessed fascist oppression firsthand during his days as a researcher in Europe in the late 1930s, and this intensified his sense of the need for international legal protection for the rights of all people.

related article The Power of Human Rights Education The Power of Human Rights Education In a world that is increasingly interconnected, a challenge of human rights is to bring people together across differences. Human rights education helps us recognize and guard against attitudes that put up barriers to others’ experience of human dignity. On one occasion, Dr. Humphrey reflected on his pride in the fact that the UDHR guaranteed not only the civil and political rights of the people but also their economic, social and cultural rights. I am sure that his personal background and life experiences had a great influence on his work to help draft and compile the Declaration.

He stressed that the UDHR was the result of a collaborative effort and that it owed some degree of its prestige and importance precisely to the fact that its authors retained their anonymity. Perhaps this is why his contributions remained largely unknown, even after retiring from his twenty-year post as director of the UN Human Rights Division.

Even so, when Dr. Humphrey personally gifted me a facsimile of the draft of the Declaration, each handwritten letter seemed to shine with the prayer of one who sows seeds for a future where all may live in dignity. Over the years, the SGI featured this draft of the UDHR as part of its exhibition “Toward a Century of Humanity: An Overview of Human Rights in Today’s World” and at other similar events.

I was able to meet Dr. Humphrey for a second time in September 1993, during this exhibition’s first international showing in Montreal, Canada. The promise I made to him that day—to transmit the spirit of the Universal Declaration to future generations—remains with me still.

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