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February 20: René Cassin and the Declaration of Human Rights

February 20, 2015

cassinFrench human rights activist and leftist pacifist René Cassin, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968 for his work twenty years earlier in helping to draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, died in Paris at 89 on this date in 1976. A lawyer, law professor, and judge, Cassin served as French delegate to the League of Nations from 1924 to 1938 and worked to develop international institutions for the resolution of conflict. Following World War II, he edited a draft of the Declaration of Human Rights written by Canadian jurist John Humphrey, and also served on the UN’s Human Rights Commission and the Hague Court of Arbitration. For the three years before his Nobel Prize he was president of the European Court of Human Rights, which is today housed in a building on Rue René Cassin Strasbourg. Cassin was also active in Jewish life: He headed the progressive Alliance Israelite Universelle in France and led it, together with the American Jewish Committee and the Anglo-Jewish Association, to create the Consultative Council of Jewish Organizations, which pursued human rights and sought to root them in the Jewish tradition. His Nobel citation described him as “a patriot and an internationalist at the same time,” “the workhorse... most responsible for the draft of the Declaration of Human Rights,” and a man who “has based much of his life’s work on the premise that human responses can be constructive if states will transform the conditions that breed ill will into those that recognize the dignity” of human beings.

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world... Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people...” —Declaration of Human Rights, 1948