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Ben-Dat: Small lights illuminating a large darkness

René Samuel Cassin (Flickr photo)

Fifty years ago, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to René Samuel Cassin. Few people know the name, let alone the man, but his place in history is assured.

Cassin was the principal author of the International Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Born in Bayonne, France, in 1887, he was a veteran of the First World War and fought all his life on behalf of the intrinsic worth and dignity of all mankind. The Nobel selection committee acknowledged his work and singularly dedicated activism by awarding him the peace prize in 1968. Cassin died eight years later.

To be sure, Cassin was not the sole author of the document that became the International Declaration of Human Rights, nor was he the sole driver of the initiative to write such a resolution. Former U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt was the chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, under whose auspices the declaration was written. And John Humphrey, a Canadian jurist, was instrumental in the document’s initial drafting. Indeed, the awarding committee described the declaration as coming “from many minds, many religions, many ideologies and many hearts.” But they also attested to the fact that it “was primarily the engineering feat of René Cassin.”

For a brief moment after the civilized world shuddered at the unspeakable ravages and horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust, the international community agreed it had a role to play in protecting humanity from such atrocities. Thus, on Dec. 10, 1948, the 58-member UN General Assembly passed the declaration with two no-shows and eight abstentions from Soviet-bloc countries, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

As we cast our minds back to that hopeful day 70 years ago, we harbour no illusions about the declaration’s effectiveness today in preventing the abuses that spawned its birth in the first place. Nativism, nationalism and populism have entered the lexicon as names for political movements that mask intolerance and bigotry in all corners of the world. Despots and tyrants pay no heed to rules other than the power imperatives that secure their vicious control over their own peoples.

Indeed, on the eve of his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, Cassin himself acknowledged the failure of governments and individuals to act morally towards their own citizens and others. But he refused to surrender the cause of human dignity and universal human rights. “The declaration,” Cassin said, “holds up an ideal for us, and it draws the guide lines for our actions.”

His words should be our road map.

We, too, must hold fast to the inviolable ideal that our laws should affirm the dignity of all human life as its highest value. We must not be paralyzed by the cynic’s laugh or the sceptic’s rise, as they derisively point to the disparity between what exists and what we hope for in the world.


Our Jewish tradition also points to the discrepancy between the ideal of the heavenly Jerusalem and the lower truth of the earthly one. But it is our life-long purpose to close the gap, in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “to bring heaven down to earth.”

In awarding the prize to Cassin in 1968, the committee pointed out that “it was on just such a cold December day as this, exactly 20 years ago, a little before midnight (that) this historic declaration of human worth and human rights was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations.… A small light was lit and the moral commandments contained in the declaration, like those written on the tablets of Moses, will in the years to come play a forceful role in reforming the conscience of man and his understanding of what is right and wrong.”

It is a good thing at this time of year to speak of small lights illuminating a large darkness. After all, who, more than we, understands the deeper meaning of this imagery?

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