Values at the United Nations

50 Years After the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Conference on World Christian Mission: Pacific Southwest
Asilomar, California - July 28-31, 1995

Fifty years ago the United Nations was formed. In the drafting of the Charter human rights were at first a minor concern, but the persistent lobbying of a few religious leaders changed that. The result in 1948 was a Universal Declaration of Human Rights that affirmed "faith in human rights." Today, a coalition of religious and educational groups is pressing the United Nations to affirm universal and spiritual values. The contrast between religious activity at the UN fifty years ago and today tells us a great deal about the changes in our world.

Fifty Years Ago

In 1945 on May 4th the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that "The rights of individuals, as well as the rights of nations, will be incorporated in the San Francisco Charter [of the United Nations] it was learned today, largely as the result of the efforts of a Philadelphia clergyman." (1) Two days earlier O. Frederick Nolde, a professor for many years at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, had convinced the Secretary of State of the United States to press for more extensive provisions for human rights and fundamental freedoms in the UN Charter.

Nolde was the executive secretary of a Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, which was formed in 1943 by the Federal Council of Churches and the Foreign Missions Conference. (These two bodies later merged to become the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U. S. A.) In 1944 a statement on religious liberty was widely distributed to political and religious leaders, and in 1945 three memoranda were submitted to the Conference on International Organization held in San Francisco.

Support had also been mobilized through the International Round Table at Princeton in July 1943, involving sixty-one Christian leaders from twelve countries in North America, Europe, and Asia and from Australia and New Zealand. And the second National Study Conference on the Churches and a Just and Durable Peace, meeting in January 1945, had recommended that the Dumbarton Proposals be amended to establish a "special commission on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms." (2)

In 1946 Nolde became the first director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA), which was established that year as a joint agency of the International Missionary Council and the emerging World Council of Churches, even as he continued to serve as the executive secretary of the Joint Committee on Religious Liberty. Under his leadership the CCIA developed a position of faith with respect to human rights and communicated that position to the UN Commission on Human Rights, which was drafting the Universal Declaration.

The CCIA acknowledged that the omission of any reference to God in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was of concern to many Christians, but affirmed that it was not the task of the UN but the calling of the churches "to bring men to faith." Moreover, the CCIA asserted that "In interpreting the Declaration, the Christian has an obligation to contend that such rights as man claims in society derive from the Christian view of man's nature and destiny, by virtue of his creation, redemption, and calling." (3)

The Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, expressed a critical view of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in an editorial asserting that "The new ethical-juridical edifice in which the man of the United Nations era is to find the security of a fortress, bears on its threshold the ancient warning: If God be not the builder of the house, its building will be in vain." (4) In 1948 the absence of explicit language in the Universal Declaration affirming that human rights come from God was a stumbling block not only for the Vatican, but the Muslim state of Saudi Arabia, which abstained during the vote on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for that reason.

But the Papal Nuncio in Paris, Monsignor Roncalli, who had met regularly with Rene Cassin, the prime drafter of the Universal Declaration, apparently had a different view. We know now that he "played an important part in the formulation of the draft Universal Declaration of Human Rights." (5) And when he became Pope John XXIII, he affirmed the Universal Declaration in a remarkable encyclical entitled Pacem in Terris. Moreover, through Vatican II he made human rights the cornerstone of the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

Nolde's appeal to Secretary of State Stettinius in 1945 was supported by Judge Proskauer, representing the American Jewish Committee. (6) And the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was encouraged by representatives of other religious traditions, such as the Baha'is. (7) But clearly, fifty years ago Protestant churches provided the key leaders among the religious non-governmental organizations lobbying for human rights protection through the United Nations.

This has changed. As the world colonized by the West has become independent and begun to recover from generations of economic and political oppression, the religious communities and organizations of Asia and Africa and the Middle East have come to play a more important role in the affairs of the United Nations. In my book Faith in Human Rights: Support in Religious Traditions for a Global Struggle (Georgetown University Press, 1991) I document how this change has led to the development of international human rights law and to broad support for human rights among religious leaders in the world.


I will not attempt to give any details about the history of the last fifty years, but instead will focus on activity among religious non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are active at the United Nations. The changes between 1945 and 1995 can be seen clearly in: the greater diversity of religious organizations represented by NGOs, the importance of "interfaith" organizations, and the activity of the recent Values Caucus formed during preparations for the Social Summit.

Presently at the United Nations an ad hoc Committee of Religious NGOs has more than one hundred members. Its chairman in 1994 was a Catholic priest working with an international interfaith organization. Its chairwoman in 1995 was a Korean Buddhist nun. There are recognized Committees on Freedom of Religion or Belief in New York and in Geneva, and the March 1995 meeting of the Committee in New York was attended by 21 persons including representatives from 5 Roman Catholic organizations, 4 Protestant organizations, 1 Jewish group, 3 interfaith organizations, and 6 non-religious groups. (8)

The World Council of Churches has a representative at the United Nations in New York, but this person has not played a significant role at the UN for many years. Today international interfaith organizations, such as the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP), the Temple of Understanding, and the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF), are far more visible in New York at the UN.

Representatives of the IARF, which is primarily a non-Christian interfaith organization, chair the Committees on Freedom of Religion or Belief in both New York and Geneva. The UN is now entering into contracts with WCRP to support conflict resolution programs in various parts of the world, and this spring UN staff in New York turned to the Temple of Understanding to organize an interfaith service there in October in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the UN. Because the World Council of Churches and Protestant denominations, such as the Lutherans and the Presbyterians, were not consulted by the UN in the decision concerning the interfaith service and have been effectively excluded from much of the planning process, these Christian groups have decided not to participate.

There has been considerable talk among religious NGOs at the United Nations about a "spiritual agency" attached to the UN or a "United Religions" organization modeled after the UN. Bishop William Swing of the Episcopal Church in California is actively seeking to charter a United Religions Organization next summer, which he hopes would be housed at the Presidio. He was invited to attend the 22 September 1995 meeting of the Committee of Religious NGOs in New York to present his ideas and to hear the concerns of leaders from a wide variety of the world's religious traditions.

Perhaps more illustrative of NGO activity at the UN these days was the Values Caucus, which was formed during the preparatory meetings leading up to the World Summit on Social Development held earlier this year in Denmark. The Values Caucus sought to support "spiritual and moral values" in social development. It held hearings and recommended amendments to the draft document for the Social Summit, amendments that largely consisted of inserting into the document phrases such as "shared values" and the "reorientation of values." (9)

One amendment recommended by the Values Caucus reads: "utilize formal and informal education, the media, institutions and groups dealing with values, and social science research to create values and attitudes that support the changes needed for social development." At the eleventh hour, the Values Caucus circulated a paragraph urging that the following statement be included in the Declaration of the Summit. "We acknowledge the universal values contained in this precept: Individuals, people and States should treat others as they would have others treat them, and should avoid treating others as they would have others avoid treating them. This precept enhances reciprocity, security, confidence building, social cohesion, solidarity, and cooperation in measurable ways and reinforces human conscience, awareness and values such as kindness and compassion which enrich human existence in ways that are beyond measurement." (10)

The Temple of Understanding, an interfaith organization located in New York, held three roundtables on "Values and Social Development" during the preparatory meetings in January 1995 for the Social Summit. But a year earlier it had convened a Group of Reflection to write a paper, which its Chair, Fr. Luis Dolan, C.P., suggested in a cover letter attached to the final product, "was forged through a dynamic collective generative process." Seventeen persons were listed as members of the Group of Reflection. Four were from the Temple of Understanding, including two Roman Catholics, a Sufi convert of Jewish lineage, and an African chief.

The Group of Reflection also included two Jews and two Muslims, none of whom represented major Jewish or Islamic international organizations, a Japanese lay Buddhist, a representative of the Office of Tibet (who was presumably a Tibetan Buddhist), a representative of the Jain mission to the UN, a Roman Catholic staff member from the World Conference on Religion and Peace, a person representing a non-religious international organization, and two persons listed as "from" the United Nations. (11) Not a single Protestant was involved.

The paper of the Group of Reflection begins with the following paragraph: "We are persons and institutions affirming the existence of universally recognized values rooted in and arising from an immeasurable Ultimate Reality. These values include compassion, love, tolerance, justice, peace, harmony, beauty and unity. These values are at the very core of human society and there can be no effective social development without them.”

The second paragraph continues this argument: "As People of Faith, we emphasize the critical need to articulate and bring these universal values into action. The spiritual dimension, the deeply moral dimension, needs to be included forthrightly in United Nations documents and activities, particularly those relating to social development such as the World Summit for Social Development and the United Nations Conference on Women and Development.”

Thus, the paper proposed the following added dimension to the work of the UN: "the expression of full humanity based on universal values with social theory and social policy manifesting these values" (emphasis in the original). This agenda was put before the Values Caucus by the representative of the Jain mission to the UN, P. N. "Bawa" Jain, who in addition to serving on the Group of Reflection was one of three co-chairs of the Values Caucus - and its primary spokesperson during the last "prepCom" of the World Summit for Social Development and the Summit itself. The other two co-chairs were a Korean Buddhist nun, Ven. Chung Ok Lee, and a New York psychologist representing the Center for Psychology and Social Change, Nancy B. Roof.

How far we have come from 1945. Then a Lutheran minister representing the Protestant denominations of the world led the religious movement for human rights during the formative stages of the UN. Moreover, he supported omitting explicit religious language from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because the newly formed World Council of Churches accepted that persuading people to have faith was the job of the churches and not the UN. In 1995, however, a Jain from India claimed to speak for religious "people of faith" and non-religious people as well, who seem to believe it is the business of the UN to promote spiritual and moral values.

At the last meeting of the Values Caucus during the preparatory meeting in January 1995, Ambassador Danilo Turk of Slovenia and I made brief presentations. He described a consultation of governmental representatives sponsored by his country which had produced a paper on "the Ethical and Spiritual Dimensions of Social Progress." (12) The paper argues that "This presence of the spirit...means that compassion, altruism, generosity and whatever is universally, if tentatively, recognized as partaking of human goodness have the power to move societies in positive directions. This is an assumption which has always been central to religions and has often been expressed in the literary works of most cultures.”

But rather than simply urging the inclusion of "values" language in the Declaration of the Social Summit, the paper made several specific suggestions. For example, it recommended that words and expressions "which depersonalize relations between individuals and society and which, though unintentionally, are contrary to the concept of human dignity, be avoided. This category includes expressions such as productive or non-productive persons or activities, human capital, human resources and the labor market." The paper also urged integrating spiritual principles into discourse about social development, drawing on "all the sources of religions and philosophies" which seek to uplift humankind.

As a concrete step in this direction, Ambassador Turk proposed that the Declaration of the Social Summit include the following statement of confession: "We recognize that inaction and mistakes made in the past contributed to situations in which many policies pursued hitherto have not produced the expected results. We pledge not to create obstacles to the efforts by the people in pursuit of social development and to act in accordance with the principle that individuals, peoples and states should treat others as they would have others treat them." (13)

It was interesting that none of the sixty or so participants in the Values Caucus that afternoon supported this statement although, like the recommended amendment of the Values Caucus, the statement affirmed the Golden Rule. The difference, of course, was the call for confession. One person in the Values Caucus argued that nations were not capable of admitting their failures. I spoke in favor of the Ambassador's efforts, and in my own comments I urged that moral leadership in politics be sought by expecting high standards of personal conduct as well as accountability ensuring that neither officials nor governments are "above the law." (14)

I also resisted the tendency of the Values Caucus to identify universal principles with language (such as "values"), which is presented as transcending particular cultural and religious traditions. There is no language that is universal. The phrase "shared values" tells us nothing, until we say more clearly what we mean. Moreover, whatever is "spiritual" or "transcendent" or "universal" must also take a material, immanent, particular form. Not all that is particular is universal, but all that is universal is particular.

Nothing is to be gained by repeating the word "values" over and over again, as if it were a magical incantation. In fact, the spiritual dimension of life is expressed more powerfully by the stories of our religious traditions, than by abstract concepts like "values." Without the stories of our faith communities, the Golden Rule may only mean enlightened self-interest.

And what do peace, compassion, forgiveness, and justice mean? The story of Jesus accepting an unjust death for the sake of his friends tells us more about what this might mean than the phrase "shared values." And the gospel stories of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Last Judgment illustrate what these virtues might really mean - helping an enemy, forgiving someone who has wronged and rejected you, caring for the sick and the poor and the oppressed without any expectation of remuneration or recognition.

These higher moral standards cannot be prescribed by law, but can only be encouraged by communities that tell such stories and value self-giving moral conduct. Governments, which seek to foster social development, cannot be expected to foster more than enlightened self-interest. But in doing so, they have a responsibility to guarantee the fundamental freedoms and human rights that are necessary for the freedom of religious communities. For only when there is religious freedom will there be a spiritual flourishing through social development.

Thus, the task of moral and spiritual renewal in our societies is not the work of the United Nations, but belongs to us all. If we are "people of faith," we are responsible for living our faith in a way that enables others to work together for a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. We are responsible for giving life to our stories of faith, so the values that are shared among the religious peoples of the world include more than merely enlightened self-interest.


What conclusions can we draw from the changes in the role of religious non-governmental organizations at the UN over the last fifty years? And what strategy with respect to the UN should Protestant Christians now support?

We must accept that our church representatives at the UN are now in the minority among religious non-governmental organizations. To be effective, therefore, Christians will have to work in coalitions with representatives of other faith communities. There are ample opportunities for such joint efforts. Thus, we should support interfaith cooperation at the UN and elsewhere - in the struggle for justice, peace and the integrity of creation.

But experience shows that such interfaith coalitions are likely to support quite general and abstract language about issues of justice and human rights - in an effort to preserve unity among different religious communities. Thus, although it is important to work with interfaith coalitions whenever we can, we must not expect that they will embrace the prophetic voices of our Protestant heritage. The call to confession and repentance, for instance, is likely to be seen by interfaith coalitions as too tied to the language and stories of Christian faith to qualify as "shared values.”

Therefore, we must speak and act clearly on the basis of our biblical faith and not hesitate to take unilateral positions, as Christians, on critical public issues. We must assert that confession and repentance are essential for moral and spiritual renewal, and not merely parochial practices within churches. And we must affirm, through our deeds as well as our words, that the gospel is not only a matter of belief among Christians but good news for the whole world.

In a world where countries and religious communities that were oppressed half a century ago are now active in international affairs, it is right that Christian voices not dominate moral discourse at the United Nation. But it is important that Christians speak out strongly and clearly in dialogue with those of other faith traditions.

Christian faith offers hope through repentance. And encouraging such repentance, by Christians as well as other people of faith, may well be our major contribution today at the United Nations.


1) Archives of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, "Human Rights Varia 1945-1968," 428.3.25, World Council of Churches, Geneva, Switzerland.

2) O. Frederick Nolde, Free and Equal: Human Rights in Ecumenical Perspective (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1968), 20.

3) O. Frederick Nolde, "The United Nations Acts for Human Rights," release by the American Committee for the World Council of Churches, in the Michigan Advocate, December 30, 1948, CCIA Archives, "UN International Bill of Human Rights, 1947-1948," 428.3.24, World Council of Churches, Geneva, Switzerland.

4) "Vatican Hits U. N. Group," subtitled "Assails Omission of God's Name in Human Rights Draft," October 31, 1948, CCIA Archives, "Human Rights Varia 1945-65," 428.3.25, World Council of Churches, Geneva, Switzerland.

5) Sean MacBride, "The Universal Declaration - Thirty Years After," in Understanding Human Rights: An Interdisciplinary and Interfaith Study, ed. Alan D. Falconer (Dublin: Irish School of Ecumenics, 1980), 9.

6) See Joseph M. Proskauer, A Segment of My Times (New York: Farrar and Straus, 1950).

7) In 1947 the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States submitted "A Baha'i Declaration of Human Obligations and Rights." Mary Ellen Togtman-Wood, "Prerequisites to Human Rights: A Baha'i Perspective," Breakthrough 10:2-3 (winter/spring 1989): 41-42.

8) Minutes, NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief (March 1, 1995).

9) "Suggested Changes to WSSD Document A/Conf/166/PC/l.22," The Values Caucus (January 6, 1995).

10) "Draft Proposal," The Values Caucus (January 27, 1995). This amendment was not included in the final declaration of the Social Summit.

11) "Toward Deeper Values and Fuller Development: A Plea to the World Summit on Social Development," Group of Reflection convened by The Temple of Understanding (January 1995).

12) "Seminar on the Ethical and Spiritual Dimensions of Social Progress," A/Conf/166/PC/27 (December 28, 1994).

13) Circulated at the Values Caucus meeting (January 27, 1995).

14) Robert Traer, "Creating an Earth Community: Suggestions for the Values Caucus," (January 27, 1995). © Robert Traer 2016