On the Gregorian calendar, today is the yahrtzeit (the anniversary) of the passing in 1976 of Rene Cassin, a French human rights activist and an author of the UN’s masterpiece, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
That noble document contains a single line articulating the right to culture: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” It can be said that everything that cultural activists like myself work for has been elaborated from that line. Indeed, it is unlikely that Cassin and his co-drafters (including Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacques Maritain) understood the implications of that line, as explained in 1970 by René Maheu, then Director-General of UNESCO:
It is not certain that the full significance of this text, proclaiming a new human right, the right to culture, was entirely appreciated at the time. If everyone, as an essential part of his dignity as a man, has the right to share in the cultural heritage and cultural activities of the community—or rather of the different communities to which men belong (and that of course includes the ultimate community—mankind)—it follows that the authorities responsible for these communities have a duty, so far as their resources permit, to provide him with the means for such participation. … Everyone, accordingly, has the right to culture, as he has the right to education and the right to work. … This is the basis and first purpose of cultural policy.
Cassin was a bona fide hero. He served as Chairman or Vice-Chairman of the UN Commission for Human Rights from 1946 to 1959, President of the Court of Arbitration at The Hague from 1950 to 1960 and President of the European Court for Human Rights 1965 to 1968. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968. After World War II, he joined his work to defeat the Nazis and to promote human rights in founding an organization, CCJO Renecassin, with this motto: “Using the experience of Jewish people to promote the human rights of all people.”
In a 1969 speech on human rights, Cassin explained how Jews must support universal human rights in the broadest sense, not advocate just for our own protection:
It was the fundamental aim of Hitlerism to stamp out the Jews, but their destruction was also part of an attack on all that the French Revolution stood for: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Human Rights. Hitler’s racialism was essentially an attempt to destroy the principles of the French Revolution.
It was under the inspiration of the Rights of Man that the Jews of the 19th century, in their several countries, began their fight for freedom. There is, then, a direct link between the problems of Human Rights and the destruction of the fruits of Hitlerism.
It is vitally important for Jews to defend Human Rights in general since just as their emancipation only began at all in the 19th century, because there was first a Declaration of Human Rights, made in France in 1789, so at the present time, if Jews do not support Human Rights for all men, they themselves have no chance of escaping fresh persecution in the future. The solidarity which exists between the Jews and the rest of the oppressed, or simply under-privileged, world is plain to see. We know that building for the future is a very difficult thing to do; we cannot hope to complete the work in one generation; all the more reason to begin at once. And we must of course work hardest at education. In order to reform attitudes of mind we must train educationalists who will themselves have a new mentality. In every country where Jews are scattered, they must concentrate on the idea that education is the key to the future.
Of course, education is only one thing, and we must remember that the developing countries need aid; technical, financial and economic cooperation is vitally necessary to them. It is idle to talk about Human Rights to people who have nothing to eat and, conversely, the well-fed but ill-educated and the ignorant cannot hope to have any conception of what “Human Rights” means.
Once the UN ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it set about elaborating its general principles into international conventions with action items. It is intensely ironic that my own country, whose leaders make so many stirring declarations about human rights, has been the frequent exception to international consensus on such questions. For example, the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, the basis in international law to oppose the use of child labor and child soldiers, was ratified by every nation except the United States and (deep breath) Somalia. It seems intensely ironic that on this day, Rene Cassin’s yahrtzeit, an American appeals court ruled that foreign-born Guantanamo Bay inmates (many of whom have been held without charges for years) cannot challenge their detention in US courts.
May Rene Cassin’s memory be known to every person. May his memory be a blessing to everyone who cherishes human rights and works to defend them.