New Zealands Contribution to the Early Post-War Development of International Human Rights

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This article outlines the contribution New Zealand has made in the field of international human rights, including the preparation of that all-important document.

1 Introduction

“Our role has been neither that of a stooge nor a divinely appointed arbitrator of right and wrong. Mostly … New Zealand has been a good, responsible UN member.”
(A D McIntosh, first head of the Department of External Affairs, 1966.)1

13 Aug 2008 09 39 52 Art1 UDHR Web New Zealands Contribution to the Early Post War Development of International Human RightsIf asked, many New Zealanders would probably describe New Zealand as a country with an enviable record of human rights. Almost inevitably, the fact that New Zealand was the first nation state in the world to give women the vote would be pointed to as an example. However, most would not be aware of the role New Zealand played in the years immediately after the end of World War II.

As one of the founding members of the United Nations (UN), New Zealand played a significant part in drawing up both the UN Charter of 1946 at San Francisco and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. Frank Corner, former New Zealand Secretary of Foreign Affairs, described New Zealand’s participation at the San Francisco conference as having “an impact that helped to change the course of history”2.

Sixty years later, international celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the latter event have been underway all year.

2 The UN Charter

The story starts not long after the US entered World War II, when discussion began on the idea of establishing an international organisation to replace the League of Nations. A series of Charters and Declarations was drawn up by the four Allied powers of Britain, the US, the USSR and China, which culminated in the Dumbarton Oaks Proposals of 1944. These suggested the establishment of a general international organisation to prevent war and preserve peace – the UN. In 1945 the UN Conference on International Organisations was held in San Francisco to further advance the planning. The intention of the conference was to produce a definitive “manifesto” for the newly-formed UN. The draft of the UN Charter was eventually signed by all 50 founding members of the UN.

New Zealand had been one of the 26 signatories of the original UN Declaration in 1942, and its participation was a sign of a more active attitude in this area of international endeavour. Although New Zealand’s involvement in the League of Nations had been insignificant, New Zealand’s experience during the Depression and World War II had shifted the national perspective. From the moment of their participation in the UN process, New Zealand’s delegates argued their beliefs with enthusiasm and determination, and this was particularly evident after the four superpowers added the Dumbarton Oaks Proposals debate at the San Francisco conference. The New Zealand delegation, led by Prime Minister Peter Fraser, was not large, but it made sure New Zealand’s voice was clearly heard.

The original Dumbarton Oaks Proposals had scarcely mentioned human rights and fundamental freedoms, but at the San Francisco conference, smaller nations in particular argued persuasively in their support. New Zealand was one of them, with Peter Fraser proposing that the following words should be included in the chapter on UN Principles:

“All members of the Organisation undertake to preserve, protect, and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, and in particular the rights of freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech, and freedom of worship”3.

While this statement was not accepted in full, art 1 of the final Dumbarton Oaks draft of the UN Charter stated that it was a UN purpose to promote and encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

In the eventual UN Charter this purpose was incorporated into art 55, which stated that the UN is to promote:

“(c) universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”

and art 56 which required that:

“All members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organisation for the achievement of the purposes set forth in Article 55.”

New Zealand and Australia had fought hard for the inclusion of these clauses and these can be seen as among the key starting points for wider UN involvement in the development of human rights law and practice.

3 Other New Zealand Initiatives

New Zealand was also involved in other important and successful initiatives, including the requirement that the UN assist in decolonisation. Another initiative was to ensure that the UN Secretariat was always international and independent. Perhaps New Zealand’s most crucial contribution related to economic and social issues. The New Zealand delegation believed that progress in these areas was vital for national stability and growth. For this reason, New Zealand was among those which successfully pushed to guarantee that the Economic and Social Council would become a principal organ of the UN and would promote a range of economic and social objectives for all nations.

Some of New Zealand’s proposals were not accepted. The delegation was forced to drop some in order to ensure that, in the words of Peter Fraser, they did not “lose the Charter”4.One notable example was the issue of the veto power awarded to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. However, overall, New Zealand’s influence was felt and its contributions were invaluable in the advancement of human rights.

4 Preparing for the UDHR

At the San Francisco conference, various delegations from smaller countries and non-governmental organisations had proposed the inclusion of a set of global human rights norms which would have universal authority and validity. As the focus of the conference was on the drafting of the UN Charter, there was not sufficient time to embark on an “international bill of rights” as well. It was, however, generally understood that drafting such a bill would be a high priority for the UN.

The Economic and Social Council did, however, move quickly to set up the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), with Eleanor Roosevelt as its chairperson. Early in 1946 the CHR began to work on the international bill of rights and, specifically, the composition of the UDHR. This proved a long and complex process.

New Zealand’s first involvement was in 1947, when the drafting subcommittee of the CHR sent all UN members the so-called “Geneva Draft” of the UDHR for comments and suggestions. Peter Fraser’s Government set up a Human Rights Committee to consider this draft. The Government then used the committee’s findings as the basis for New Zealand’s comments on the draft. New Zealand was one of the few UN members to complete and submit such a response to the CHR5 .

Peter Fraser’s Government also sent Dr Colin Aikman, a young New Zealand lawyer then studying in London, to the Third Session of the CHR in New York. He was asked to observe the proceedings and report back to the special New Zealand Committee in Wellington. He did so, and from this information the Committee put together a further set of comments.

These two documents were used to prepare and inform the New Zealand delegation going to the UN General Assembly (GA) for the final round of negotiations on the UDHR in Paris in September 1948. The delegation was again led by Peter Fraser. It included Ann Newlands, the President of the Women’s Section of the Labour Party and a member of the Labour Party Executive Commission, and also Dr Aikman. Ann Newlands was to present New Zealand’s views and beliefs before the UN GA Third Committee, and Dr Aikman was to act as Ann Newlands’ legal adviser. The delegation was to be in Paris for 3 months while they argued New Zealand’s case at the UN.

One concept which the New Zealand delegation fought for was that the international bill of rights be adopted as a whole – rather than only the UDHR. New Zealand felt that the UDHR needed to have legal validity and that this would be provided if the bill was included in its entirety. Eleanor Roosevelt was also enthusiastic that the international bill of rights be adopted in its entirety. However, both the New Zealand delegates and Eleanor Roosevelt were forced to compromise and it took the UN another 18 years to successfully produce and adopt a bill of rights with “legal teeth”6.The New Zealand delegation had to content itself with securing a resolution that the CHR would continue to make the legal document and its implementation an essential component of its work.

5 Drafting of the UDHR

“Experience in New Zealand has taught us that the assertion of the right of personal freedom is incomplete unless it is related to the social and economic rights of the common man. There can be no difference of opinion as to the tyranny of privation and want. There is no dictator more terrible than hunger.” (Delegation member, Dr Colin Aikman, on behalf of New Zealand, UN, 1948.)7

With the onset of the Cold War and the exacerbation of ideological differences between UN members, every article of the UDHR was argued in minute detail and the drafting process significantly hampered. A major issue of dissension was the significance of civil and political rights (strongly promoted by the West) vis-a-vis economic, cultural, and social rights (strongly advocated by the Eastern bloc countries). New Zealand’s position on the issue was not a typically Western one in that the New Zealand delegation expressed the belief that although all of the UDHR’s articles were equally important, a nation’s Government had a specific responsibility to promote economic, social, and cultural rights because civil and political rights were incomplete without them8. This was reflected in New Zealand’s stance on the debates surrounding art 23, the right to employment, in which New Zealand was concerned about the situation of trade unions, and art 24, the right to rest and leisure and reasonable limitations on working hours.

Late on the night of 10 December 1948, 2 days before the end of the GA session, the process finally ended – the UDHR was unanimously adopted with only eight member States abstaining from the vote. New Zealand had actively participated in a successful response to the post-World War II desires for peace, security, and fraternity.



1. M Templeton, “New Zealand at San Francisco”, in
M Templeton (ed), New Zealand as an International Citizen: Fifty Years of United Nations Membership, Wellington, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 1995.

2. The Rt Hon Don McKinnon, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in a speech to mark World Human Rights Day, Wellington, 10 December 1997.

3. Above n 1, p 17.

4. Above n 1, p 16.

5. Above n 1, p 3.

6. H Fawthorpe, “Human rights”, in M Templeton (ed), New Zealand as an International Citizen: Fifty Years of United Nations Membership, Wellington, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 1995, p 97.

7. C Aikman, “New Zealand and the origins of the Universal Declaration”, address to NZIIA seminar commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the UDHR, 1998, p 5.

8. Above n 7.

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