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Dr. Charles Malik: The human rights legacy of Lebanon’s philosopher-diplomat

Following the horrors of the Second World War, which brought immeasurable death and destruction to millions of people worldwide, and just ahead of the Cold War and the consequent deceleration of many constructive developments, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) managed to emerge successfully from the complex and politically perilous processes of the United Nations on December 10, 1948 to become the organization’s, and the world’s, human-rights flagship. Since 1950, the anniversary of the UDHR’s adoption and proclamation has been commemorated worldwide as World Human Rights Day.

Among the Declaration’s framers was Lebanon’s first ambassador to the US and the UN, Dr. Charles Malik.

Born in Bitirram in the Koura district of North Lebanon in 1906, Malik was approached by the first administration of newly independent Lebanon in the mid-1940’s as it sought to enhance its international standing in terms of overseas representation. His initial response was to decline the offer. However, he later reversed his decision and was entrusted to head the Lebanese delegation to Washington and the UN, where he signed the UN Charter on behalf of Lebanon. Prior to that, the Harvard-educated philosophy professor was lecturing at the American University of Beirut and was happily settled in what he believed to be his life’s occupation: teaching and speculation in search of the truth.

At the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, Malik was offered an exceptional opportunity to contribute, first as a philosophy professor and later as a diplomat, to the drafting of the UDHR, his most significant and enduring achievement.

The contributions of Charles Malik, “the philosophy professor,” feature his philosophical concerns with freedom, religion and the individual in relation to the state. It seems that his studies under Alfred North Whitehead at Harvard (1932) and Martin Heidegger in Germany (1936), both prominent philosophers of his time, did not go unnoticed in the Commission on Human Rights’ deliberations. The “Four Basic Principles” that Malik proposed on February 4, 1947 to guide Commission’s work exhibit his philosophical edge, which he invested in favor of the individual in his struggle with the endless pressure of the groups.

These principles accentuate first, that the individual inherently comes before any national or cultural group to which he may belong. Second, a person’s mind and conscience are his most sacred and inviolable possessions. Third, any social pressure from the state, religion or any other group aimed at coercing consent is automatically wrong. Fourth, since groups, as well as individuals, may be right or wrong, the person’s conscience is the competent judge.

As for the essence of freedom, and in particular freedom of thought and conscience, Malik viewed it in dynamic rather than in static terms, so that the end result of freedom is not only the right to exist, but the right to become. Nowhere is his philosophical leverage more evident than in the first clause of the UDHR’s preamble’s and in Article 18. They address the “inherent dignity” and unity of the human family, as well as freedom of thought and belief.

Malik’s role in shaping the UDHR was not only confined to his contributions as a philosophy professor. As the historical record shows, it was Charles Malik “the diplomat” who, more than any other delegate, helped railroad the Declaration to adoption without a single dissenting vote in the tense cold war atmosphere of 1948, thus universalizing the rights and freedoms enunciated in the document. His tactful responses to his fellow delegates, the various positions he was assigned to at the UN, and finally his insistence on a “composite synthesis” of all existing rights and traditions, all reveal the astute diplomatic skills he acquired in a mere three years at the UN.

Indeed, Malik, who was elected as rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights by acclamation in January 1947, was elected by secret ballot in February 1948 as president of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Commission’s parent body. And in the fall of 1948, when the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee was delegated the task of going through and approving the final draft of the Declaration before offering it to the General Assembly for a vote, Charles Malik was elected by secret ballot, again, as its chair. As Professor Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School put it, “The delegate from tiny Lebanon was wearing three big hats as the Declaration moved through its crucial final stages in the fall of 1948.”

Charles Habib Malik died on December 28, 1987, six weeks before his eighty-second birthday. He could not have summed it up better when he affirmed in his December 9, 1948 speech before the UN General Assembly: “The Declaration will serve as a potent critic of existing practice. It will help to transform reality. It will do more than that. We are going to work out conventions; but these conventions will be based upon this text. We are going to elaborate measures of implementation; but these measures must implement these rights.”

Fifty-nine years later, it seems that Malik’s foresight was rightly in place.

Jean-Pierre Katrib is head of the Public Education Committee at the Foundation for Human & Humanitarian Rights (Lebanon).

  • Farshad Garavand

    Persons like Charles Malik opened the future ways for us. We should always remember them due to their big acheivements that we use them now.

    May 12, 2009

  • Marco Antonio

    I agree withTony, Charles Malik was a bright light for Lebanon and he should be internationally known for his accomplishments. We should act immediately on that issue as you suggest in you comment. It is a very good idea and an interesting point. Cheers!

    December 12, 2007

  • tony

    I would like to ask the Charles Malik Foundation, the Lebanese Government, and all concerned parties to FORMALLY request that Dr. Malik's name be shown on the front cover of the UDHR, and that proper credit is given to Dr. Malik. We should no longer accept to talk about Dr. Malik's accomplishments, while the whole world and the UN specifically denies him and Lebanon the most basic rights of co-authorship. We should act immediately.

    December 11, 2007