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H.G. Wells and Human Rights

In Being a World Citizen, Human Rights, Literature, Solidarity, United Nations, World Law on January 21, 2023 at 8:42 PM

By René Wadlow

2023 will see a year-long effort leading to December 10, 2023, the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The effort carries the title “Dignity, Freedom and Justice for All”. Thus, it is useful to look at some of the intellectual preparations both within the League of Nations and among individual thinkers for the Universal Declaration. One of the most widely read was that of Herbert George (H.G.) Wells’ “Declaration of the Rights and Duties of the World Citizen” which is found in his book Phoenix: A Summary of the Inescapable Conditions of World Reorganization published in 1942. The Declaration of the Rights and Duties of the World Citizen had been translated into 10 languages and sent to 300 editors of newspapers in 48 countries.

H.G. Wells was concerned from the 1930s on with the ways the world should be organized with a world organization stronger than the League of Nations. Such a world organization should be backed up and urged on by a strong body of public opinion linked together worldwide by the unifying bond of a common code of human rights and duties.

At the end of the First World War, H.G. Wells was a strong advocate of the League of Nations, but as time went on, he became aware of its weaknesses. He wrote in 1939, “The League of Nations, we can all admit now, was a poor and ineffective outcome of that revolutionary proposal to banish armed conflict from the world and inaugurate a new life for mankind… Does this League of Nations contain within it the gem of any permanent federation of human effort? Will it grow into something for which men will be ready to work for and, if necessary, fight – as hither to they have been willing to fight for their country and their own people? There are few intimations of any such enthusiasm for the League at the present time. The League does not even seem to know how to talk to the common man. It has gone into official buildings, and comparatively few people in the world understand or care what it is doing there.”

Thus, there was a need for a clear statement of world values that could be understood by most and that would be a common statement of the aspiration on which to build a new freedom and a new dignity. Wells had a strong faith in international public opinion when it was not afraid to express new and radical thoughts that cut across the conventional wisdom of the day. He wrote in 1943, “Behind the short-sighted governments that divide and mismanage human affairs, a real force for world unity and order exists and grows.”

Wells hoped that the “Declaration of the Rights of the World Citizen” would become the fundamental law for mankind through the whole world – a true code of basic rights and duties which set out the acceptable shape of a just world society.

Wells set out 10 rights which combined civil liberties already common to many democratic states with economic and social rights which were often considered as aspirations but not as rights. Thus, among the 10 rights we find the Right to Participate in Government, Freedom of Thought and Worship, the Right to Knowledge, Freedom from Violence including Torture, along with the Right to Education, the Right to Medical Care, the Right to Work with Legitimate Remuneration, the Protection of Minors, Freedom of Movement about the Earth.

The drafters of the United Nations (UN) Charter in 1945 included a pledge by member states “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in equal rights of men and women, and of nations large and small.” Much of the debate from 1946 when the UN Commission on Human Rights was created until December 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed concerned the relative place of civil liberties and of economic, social, and cultural rights.

While the text of H.G. Wells is largely forgotten today, he had the vision of the strong link between freedom of thought based on civil liberties and the need for economic dignity set out in the economic, social, and cultural rights.

Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.

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