'Celebrating what it is to be human and free'

Phillip O'Neill

Herbert Vere ('Doc') Evatt was born in East Maitland in 1894. He is probably the Hunter region's most famous politician, perhaps the region's most important international figure of all time. Sixty years ago, on 10 December 1948, in Paris, Doc Evatt officiated as President of the General Assembly of the United Nations. It was one of the most important events in world history because it was the day when the nations of the world proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The document had been drafted by a committee led by Eleanor Roosevelt, the much loved wife of the much loved US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Mrs Roosevelt presented her work to our Doc. At the time the Doc was Australia's Attorney General and Minister for External Affairs in the Chifley Labor government.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a remarkable statement. Find a copy of the Declaration and enjoy its words, warm yourself with its optimism, feel the hope of its writers for a world better than the one that had been ripped asunder by a world war just ended, and by a Great Depression that for many was still lingering.

The Declaration's first article is simple: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Read on through the 30 articles.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

All are equal before the law.

"It's a remarkable achievement for a pumpkin picker, isn't it?"

And so it goes; a plain, powerful enunciation of what it should mean to be human on any day, at any time, anywhere in the world.

There is much to learn from this time in history. It was a time of utter crisis requiring international solutions. The world needed an end to war and a plan for economic recovery.

Two major meetings set the agenda. The first was at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire in northeast USA in July 1944. Here 44 nations wrote the rules for a postwar economic recovery based on international cooperation and mutual assistance.

The second meeting was a month later at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC. Here the USA, the UK, China and the USSR devised the idea of the United Nations.

The condition of the world was shaped by these international meetings, most famously by the economic planning which became known as the Bretton Woods agreements.

The Bretton Woods agreements were enduring, surviving until the worldwide rush to deregulate national economies in the 1980s. We now suffer a financial and an economic crisis directly attributable to the deregulation experiment. This crisis has generated calls for another Bretton-Woods style agreement to set common rules again for the way banks and governments should function the world over.

Revisiting Bretton Woods, though, should mean we also recall the legacy of Dumbarton Oaks and the work of people like Eleanor Roosevelt and Doc Evatt in nurturing a fledgling United Nations and producing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For this legacy recalls a patent truth: a decent world needs more than a successful economy, it requires recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, as the Declaration tells us.

In other words, greed isn't an enduring driver of economy just as it isn't a way to underpin a society. Rather the promotion of human rights - true generosity - is fundamental to the success of any society, even its economic success.

But back to the Doc.

H. V. Evatt's name is attached to one of the world's most outstanding statements of human hope. It's a remarkable achievement for a pumpkin picker isn't it?

Sure, Evatt had his enemies, like all politicians. Old timers tell me the Doc was not given a warm homecoming when he was shoehorned into the federal seat of Hunter in 1958 towards the end of his career.

He left parliament in 1960 and died 5 years later at his Canberra home. Yesterday (November 2) was the anniversary of his death.

Evatt had seven brothers, all raised single handed by his mother following the death of his father, the local publican, a man from India, when young Herbert was just seven years old. H. V. Evatt completed his primary schooling at the East Maitland Superior Public School. His teachers must have taught him well. I wonder what traces of his life remain in our midst? Irrespective, on its 60th birthday read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in his honour.


Phillip O'Neill is the Director of the Urban Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney. This article was first published in the Newcastle Herald on 3 November 2008 and is reproduced with the author's kind permission.


Also on the Evatt site

Suggested citation
O'Neill, Phillip, ''Celebrating what it is to be human and free'', Evatt Journal, Vol. 8, No. 4, November 2008.<http://evatt.org.au/news/celebrating-what-it-be-human-and-free.html>