Human rights history in 30 minutes

BEIRUT: Cinema, it seems, is interested in human rights. IMDB suggests there are over 1200 titles “on” that subject.

Among the 11 million results turning up in an online search for documentary films on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (arguably the main reason “rights” are a matter of discussion at all) are Geneva’s International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Mobile Film Festival.

The UDHR is the subject of numerous institutional documentaries, including Victoria Schultz’s 1998 “For Everyone, Everywhere: The Making of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” narrated by an uncomfortable-looking Harrison Ford.

The most recent addition to this number is Rawan Damen’s “The Declaration.” The film had its Lebanon debut at the French Institute on Dec. 12, a couple of days after the 70th anniversary of UDHR’s signing.

The promotional material released before the doc’s rollout suggested Damen’s 27-minute work would recount the “untold story of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” It doesn’t quite do that. Any filmmaker would be hard pressed to recount the pertinent issues from three years of negotiations in half an hour without covering familiar ground.

Neither does the film give itself the chance to follow the lead of other documentaries in providing the political context for the UDHR the gross human rights violations perpetrated during World War II, say, or countless efforts to cajole states to abide by the declaration since it was signed.

“Declaration” eschews interviews with historians or veteran diplomats for insights on what transpired during the three years of negotiations that culminated in the signing of UDHR. What the film does do is provide a precis of the process behind the negotiations.

Its content is completely comprised of information Damen gleaned from written records of 210 minutes of meetings she’d read. File footage from the late ’40s is interspersed among with contemporary images from the (often empty) chambers where the diplomats met.

The film argues that “human rights” had not been a talking point among diplomats previously. It was mentioned only once during the Yalta Conference of 1945 and was integral to the founding language of the United Nations in a way that it had not been for the League of Nations, the U.N.’s predecessor.

Damen also sketches the dynamic among the three national representatives who sat on the newly formed Human Rights Commission America’s Eleanor Roosevelt, China’s Pen-Chun Chang and Lebanon’s Charles Malik meeting in 1947 to draft an International Bill of Human Rights, which eventually came to be the UDHR.

Chang and Malik found it impossible to work together on the draft, she notes, but doesn’t detail the nature of their personalities, their training or their differences.

Instead, the story briskly moves on to note that Canadian John Humphrey shouldered the burden of composing the bill’s first draft, and that Roosevelt was the real hero of the negotiation process.

It is noted that the commission’s discussions were held at the same time that Folke Bernadotte - the U.N. Peace Mediator in Palestine, who was assassinated by Zionist terrorists a few months before UDHR was signed - was arguing passionately for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

Another issue that gets a mention is the argument, from the Indian delegate, that the term “men” should not be assumed to be inclusive of all humans.

Arguing that the declaration was a triumph of diplomacy and compromise, the film notes that none of the countries participating in Human Rights Commission discussions voted against UDHR. A few states did abstain, however. They are duly noted for posterity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 27, 2018, on page 12.




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