Lili Eylon

Rene Cassin’s greatest achievement turns 73

The UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been ratified by all current 192 member nations, except for two: Somalia and, of course, the United States
The French National Committee in London. From L to R: André Diethelm, Émile Muselier, Charles de Gaulle, René Cassin, René Pleven, Philippe Auboyneau, in 1942. (Wikipedia)
The French National Committee in London. From L to R: André Diethelm, Émile Muselier, Charles de Gaulle, René Cassin, René Pleven, Philippe Auboyneau, in 1942. (Wikipedia)

There will never be peace on this planet as long as human rights are being violated in any part of the world.” — Rene Cassin

“Human rights are an integral part of the faith and tradition of Judaism. The beliefs that man was created in the divine image, that the human family is one, and that every person is obliged to deal justly with every other person are basic sources of the Jewish commitment to human rights.” — René Cassin, 1974

Many dream and strive to better the world. Few succeed. One man who did was Rene Samuel Cassin, son of a Jewish merchant, born in 1887, in the southern French town of Bayonne.

Specifically, Rene Cassin was largely responsible for drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first legal document in the world to embrace and concern all of humanity, adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948, 73 years ago today. It was the product of 18 years of labor for Rene Cassin, dubbed the father of the declaration, Cassin — juror, professor, Jewish educator, and passionate pacifist — worked alongside Dr. Charles Malik, Lebanon’s representative to the United Nations, a philosopher and a humanist, in a committee wisely chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. For his work, Cassin was awarded the 1968 Nobel Peace Prize.

All three creators of the treaty would no doubt have been shocked to witness a scene that took place more than two generations later in the same General Assembly that had adopted the document unanimously. A report presented to the assembly by the Council for Human Rights, a 15-member body created by the treaty, was publicly torn up by Israel’s UN representative, Gilad Erdan, and declared “fit for the dustbin of antisemitism.” That council, at different times, had condemned Israel 95 times, compared to 112 times for all other countries combined, including Iran and Syria. President Chaim Herzog, father of the current president of Israel, performed a similar gesture on November 10, 1975, tearing up a council document equating Zionism to racism.

With his small moustache, modest goatee, and serious mien, Rene Cassin could be reminiscent of a kindly country doctor bending over a patient’s bed, dispensing considered advice for betterment. In fact, this respected figure was concerned with greater ills — those of society. As he expressed it, he was concerned with the “protection of whole man and the rights of all men…” The prevention of the gangs of the “Leviathan state from acting against man and the human community.”

Rene Cassin distinguished himself scholastically at an early age: at 17, he completed his first university degree. He continued to shine in academic circles, winning international respect, recognition, and formal honors.

In his writings, as well as in his lectures, the passionate pacifist never ceased advocating disarmament, nor did he ever stop being a staunch proponent of creating institutions for the resolution of international conflicts.

But Cassin was also a passionate patriot. He may have preached against war, but with the appearance of the German danger in 1914, he enlisted and fought in World War I. In the Battle of the Meuse, he was badly wounded, and remained unfit for further soldiering.

The sights and horrors of war profoundly shook and indelibly affected him. As did the injustice of the Dreyfus affair. He then realized that words, lectures, tirades were not enough.

Cassin began by taking up the case of French veterans. Praise and glory for French fighting heroes were not enough. Rene Cassin could not abide the idea of simply having them rewarded with the traditional veterans’ pensions, giving them charity alms. He felt that human dignity demanded that disabled veterans who had struggled and sacrificed so much for their country receive the right to be reintegrated into society. He fought within the French Veterans’ Society he founded for their right to obtain re-education, bank loans to start small businesses, artificial limbs.

“How is it that once victory took form, we could have shamelessly broken that promise given to the people in those years of ordeal?” he asked. And he and his colleagues labored to give the injured world hope that the tragedies of the two world wars would never occur again and the dignity of the life of every person would be respected.

His career continued as a French delegate to the League of Nations, where he resumed his campaign for legal answers to injustice. And, together with most of his contemporaries, he believed the bitter memories and the horror pictures he retained from World War I belonged finally to the “war to end all wars,” never to be repeated.

After those illusory 20 interbellum years, pacifist Cassin found himself in London, at the side of General Charles de Gaulle, commander of the Free French army and head of the provisional French government in exile. Cassin addressed French Jews at a London broadcast, exhorting them to support and join the Free French army in its fight. As de Gaulle’s legal adviser, Cassin also helped draw up the legal code for the future French government.

At the same time, Cassin realized that the children had undergone a lacuna in studies during the four years of war, and he turned his attention to reinvigorating the Alliance Israelite Universelle. He served as a long-time president (1943-1976) of the organization which had had its beginnings in 1862 in Tetouan, Morocco, and has since spread its network to many countries, especially in the Middle East. A number of these schools exist in Israel, with two in Jerusalem named for Rene Cassin.

“Our school,” says Sagie Cohen, the principal of the Rene Cassin School, located since 1974 in the Maalot Dafna neighborhood of the capital, “is open to all and consists of Jews and Arabs, secular and religious pupils.” Asked whether the pupils know about the achievements of the man for whom their school is named, the principal spoke of the annual December week when all the classes, each according to its level, is devoted to learning about Rene Cassin. And in every class, a copy of the declaration decorates a wall.

Simplified, some of the 30 articles declare:

  • All men are born free and equal
  • All have the right to life…
  • No discrimination
  • No slavery
  • No torture

The 30 articles were either accepted by most states or were partially entered into their own constitutions.

At the time of this writing, the 73-year-old document had been ratified by all 192 current member nations, except for two: Somalia and the United States. Only in 1988 did the US (as the 98th country) ratify another significant treaty conceived in the aftermath of human carnage: the UN Genocide Convention. Likewise, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and Convention on the Rights of the Child, among others, remain without an American official stamp.

With the declaration, the traditional exclusive authority over their citizens by sovereign individual states was now to be exercised under the authority of international law.

Could that be the driving fear for American reluctance?

In his acceptance speech of his Nobel Peace Prize, Rene Cassin said, “I am very happy. It is not given to every man to have the luck to learn law, to teach it, to make it as a judge and promote it internationally as an international judge. But,” he added, “I would be happier if there were a little more justice in the world.”

About the Author
Lili Eylon is Czech by birth, American by education, Israeli by choice. She has been a journalist since the days of Methuselah, having studied English Literature and journalism at Brooklyn College and the University of Wisconsin. She traveled widely as the spouse of Israeli diplomat Ephraim Eylon, and is mother to Raanan Yisrael and David Baruch z"l, who fell in the service of the IDF.
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