Peng Chun Chang and the Holistic Approach to Human Rights

73 years ago, in the early hours of 10 December 1948, the UN General Assembly was meeting at the Palais Chaillot in Paris. The previous night the Assembly had just adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and the meeting continued past midnight to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an essential addendum to the UN Charter. This remarkable document which has been translated into 500 languages, reflects a universal commitment to human dignity and constitutes a Magna Carta for all humankind.

The principal drafters of the declaration were the American President of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt, the French legal expert René Cassin, the Lebanese diplomat Charles Malik and the Chinese philosopher and diplomat P.C. Chang (1892-1957). The document was a collaborative effort by representatives of all regions of the world, assisted by the logistical and substantive support of the UN Secretariat under the Canadian law professor John Humphrey.

It is extraordinary that the notable intellectual contribution of Malik and Chang has been largely overlooked by historians and the media, at least thus far, but recently a book was published by Swedish Professor Hans Ingvar Roth, P.C.Chang and the Universal Declaration, which is likely to change that perception. Indeed, it was Chang who more than anyone else infused philosophy into the document, in particular the global and cross-cultural perspective. Without a doubt, Chang deserves credit for the universality and religious ecumenism of the declaration, for its holistic approach to civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights.

Born in Tianjin, Chang had a multifaceted life. He taught philosophy at Nankai University in Tianjin and became a renowned scholar of Chinese traditional drama and Peking opera. In the 1930’s he led the Chinese Classical Theatre on tour to North America and the Soviet Union, but following Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, Chang joined the resistance and eventually had to flee the country. He was crucial in promoting awareness in Europe and America of the Nanking genocide, whereas many as 300,000 Chinese were massacred by the Japanese.

In 1942 Chang became a full-time diplomat and served as China’s ambassador to Turkey, where he enthusiastically disseminated knowledge about Chinese history and culture, its silks and porcelains, its literature and philosophy. An expert on the political thought of Confucius (551-479 BC), he also promoted knowledge about the ethics of Meng-tse (Mencius, 372-289 BC) and stressed that diplomacy should advance virtue, its noblest goal being to “subdue people with goodness.” He enlightened many about the influence of Chinese philosophy on European thinkers including Voltaire and Diderot.

As Vice-President of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Chang inspired delegations by his Renaissance knowledge and modesty. He promoted ancient and up-to-date ideas of Chinese philosophers — not because they were Chinese, but because they were universally valid.

In the course of the 1950s, the holistic approach to human rights was abandoned by the Commission on Human Rights and the Universal Declaration was split into two categories of rights: on the one side the individualistic “business friendly” rights, on the other the social and cultural rights, requiring governmental investment in education, health, creation of jobs. Even worse, some Western pundits introduced the prejudicial concepts of rights of the first generation (civil and political), second generation (social and cultural) and third generation (peace, development, solidarity, and other collective rights). The “Western” approach to human rights was to prioritize the right to property and the right to expression over the rights to food, water, shelter, and health.

Soon governments discovered that they could instrumentalize human rights to advance geopolitical goals. The Commission on Human Rights was transformed into a gladiator arena in which governments threw daggers and insulted each other instead of trying to cooperate in good faith in order to solve global problems. The practice of “naming and shaming” became ubiquitous, country mandates were created to target particular states. In so doing the Commission used double standards, because some of the worst violators of human rights never became targets of “international fact-finding commissions”. Meanwhile, the weaponization of human rights was expanded to incorporate many “independent” non-governmental organizations, well financed by governments and corporations with a view to denounce and destabilize geopolitical rivals. In 2006 the Commission was replaced by the Human Rights Council, without, however, returning to the commitment to objectivity and international solidarity promoted by C.P.Chang. The hijacking of human rights became even more visible in 2021 when the European Centre for Law and Justice published a well-documented study on the openly political financing of UN Special Rapporteurs, an endemic problem that puts into question their objectivity and independence.

10 December 2021 is a propitious date to celebrate the spirit of the drafters of the Universal Declaration, to recognize that it was the common achievement of all nations and peoples, based on all philosophies and religions — from Confucius to Lao-Tse, Buddha, Moses, Aristotle, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, etc. As sisters and brothers who share this common planet Earth, let us rediscover the spirituality of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and honour the contribution of P.C. Chang to the development of a universal consciousness of human dignity. Indeed, human rights are not the exclusive domain of any region of the world – they are the common heritage of mankind.


Alfred de Zayas is a law professor at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and served as a UN Independent Expert on International Order 2012-18. He is the author of twelve books including “Building a Just World Order” (2021) “Countering Mainstream Narratives” 2022, and “The Human Rights Industry” (Clarity Press, 2021).