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The Doc, the UN & the UDHR

Reflections on the 60th Anniversary

Christopher Sheil


I should begin by making the basis of my words clear. The Evatt Foundation was founded in 1979 as a memorial to Dr Herbert Vere Evatt, or 'the Doc' as he was universally known, with the aim of upholding the highest ideals of the labour movement — equality, democracy, social justice and human rights. In the time since 1979, there have been five presidents of the Foundation, and I'm the first to have no personal memory of Dr Evatt. My knowledge of the Doc, including his role in the United Nations, is purely secondary, partly through my research on labour history, which is where my qualifications lie, and partly through people who really did know him, people such as the Foundation's former president, Bruce Childs. Time marches on. With my election as president and Chris Gambian as secretary, the Evatt Foundation has now passed into the care of a generation for whom the Doc is only a historical figure.

Doc Evatt

And what an historical figure! The most cursory research will quickly reveal that he was a larger than life character. Indeed, when you confront his career, it's a little difficult to believe that there was only one Doc Evatt. He strikes me as someone who somehow managed to lead several lives, all at once. Born in Maitland in 1894 and educated at Fort Street High School, he won bursaries to study at Sydney University, where he graduated in Arts and Law with one of the most brilliant academic records ever attained. As well as every other prize on offer, the Doc won the university medal — thrice, including for his doctorate in laws. He became a distinguished advocate, the author of several important books on Australian history, a patron of the arts, and he remains the youngest person to have been appointed as a justice of the High Court. He was a member of both the New South Wales and Commonwealth parliaments. He was the Federal Attorney General and Minister for External Affairs for eight years, the Leader of the Opposition for nine, and finally, at the end of his career, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of NSW.

When you add the context in which he lived, which included the experience of the two world wars, the Great Depression and the Cold War, I feel exhausted thinking about his career. His achievements included playing an extraordinary role in international affairs between 1941 and 1949. It is this period, of course, that is the subject of this talk, in particular the year 1948. What was the significance of the Doc's election as the President of the General Assembly for its Third Session 60 years ago? What did he have to do with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights during his term in the chair? This is a big international story. It's a very big Australian story. And it's a story that has deeper roots than 1948. Both the Doc's election as President of the Assembly and his part in the adoption of the Universal Declaration derive from his legendary role at the conference in San Francisco that formed the United Nations in 1945, 63 years ago today.

The San Francisco Conference

To appreciate the Doc's role in San Francisco, it's first necessary to appreciate something of the international context. In the wake of the failure of the League of Nations in 1939, the early indications of the direction for the new world organisation were that the body would basically comprise the Great Powers and essentially be limited to maintaining security against military aggression. At the Cairo Conference in 1943, Churchill, Roosevelt and Chiang-Kai-Shek decided on the post-war disposition of Japanese-occupied islands in the Pacific without consultation. At Dumbarton Oaks in Washington in 1944, the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and China planned out the future of international organisation. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill came to joint positions on the new order.1

Australia had virtually no role in these developments, to the dismay of Prime Minister John Curtin and his brilliant Minister for External Affairs. The Great Powers — the United Kingdom, France, the United States, the Soviet Union and China — basically approached the San Francisco Conference as an exercise in consulting with the other nations on amendments to the Yalta and Dumbarton texts, amendments that they had already agreed between themselves. Broadly, the Great Powers proposed to explain and discuss, not substantially amend, a blueprint for an organisation centred on military security and dominated by the Security Council, on which each of them would have a comprehensive veto power.

The Curtin government and Dr Evatt had different ideas. To appreciate where the Australian Labor government was coming from, it's crucial to recognise that its domestic and world outlook was shaped as much by the experience of the Great Depression as the world wars. 'I give you the Labor Government's policy in a phrase', said John Curtin in his policy speech for the 1943 election, 'victory in war, victory in peace. On that we stand inflexible, for a lost peace would be marked by horrors of starvation, unemployment, misery and hardship no less grievous than the devastation of war.'2

It was this broad conception of security that characterised Australia's position when Evatt, Deputy Prime Minister Frank Forde, and their party of very able advisers (including one woman, Jessie Street), headed to San Francisco. It was a belief in the idea that economic and social security was the precondition for enduring peace; that no system of security 'can be permanent', as the Doc said, 'unless it has an adequate basis in economic justice'.3 Peace was not a negative concept for Evatt. Peace was not just a state where there was an absence of war. Peace was a positive concept; a belief, as he said, 'that real stability in the post-war world can be achieved only by carefully building an organisation that will do its utmost to assure the peoples of the world a full opportunity of living in freedom from want, as well as in freedom from external aggression'.4

San Francisco thus loomed as nothing less than a point of collision between the presumptions of the Great Powers about the priority placed on security against military aggression and the emergence of an independent Australian foreign policy, based on a broader conception of security; the conception based on recognising the social and economic causes of conflict championed by Dr Evatt. The cliche about David versus Goliath could be properly invoked. 'If Australia wanted to make a mark', wrote William Hudson, 'it would have to be at the San Francisco Conference.'5

Outcomes How well did Evatt do? First, let me recall the scene in San Francisco. There were 282 delegates from 50 countries with 1500 staff and a secretariat of 1000 to translate the documents. Delegations ranged in size from three in the case of some small countries to 175 from the United States, with the Australian group of 25 comparable to other nations of similar size and status. More than 2500 reporters attended. The principal committees on the General Assembly, the Security Council and the World Court were open to the public. Twelve other committees that finalised the draft charter and resolved disagreements did their work without an audience. By the end of the conference, many of these were meeting twice a day, meaning that there were nine or ten meetings each day.

Evatt and his advisers thrived on the committee system, evolving a system of 'continuous reporting'. Well prepared and with a consistent and comprehensive agenda, each member of the Australian delegation attended as many committees as physically possible, so that everyone was familiar with the workings of the conference as a whole. As much as possible, every delegate was interchangeable, as they tracked progress across all fronts. This allowed Evatt to be on the spot when most required and fully informed of the issues at hand. The Australian reporting system led to a joke among the other delegates that there were 'ten Evatts' at the conference.6

Evatt's success at San Francisco was due to both 'his remarkable personal qualities' and 'his mobilization and leadership of the smaller powers'. He convinced the other nations that they had diplomatic muscle, especially if they acted in unison. Also critical was the election of Australia to the Executive Committee. This enabled Australia to work closely with the Great Powers in managing the business of the conference. After Evatt began to attend the Executive Committee, he dominated the proceedings through his personality and legal ability. He made himself the man who had to be pleased to get agreement from the small and medium powers. The world apart from the Great Powers became Australia's allies — and Evatt's voting bloc — as the conference progressed.

Evatt staked his claim to this ground at the outset when Australia opposed the incorporation of the amendments that had been agreed among the Great Powers into the Dumbarton Oaks document, before the amendments from other countries were considered. 'Evatt claimed that it would be 'a very wrong procedure' to treat the amendments of any power or group of powers as the basic document.' This initial opposition to preferential treatment demonstrated to the smaller and middling nations that Australia would defend their interests. More substantially, Evatt fought two major fights — against the Security Council veto, and in favour of broadening the ambit of the General Assembly.

Evatt was not the only representative of small and middle powers to fight the veto, but he was the 'most effective critic'.7 His position was that the Great Powers should only be able to veto economic or military sanctions against themselves. Evatt and the New Zealand representative led a last-ditch effort to exclude the veto from discussions related to 'peaceful settlement' over three days of vigorous debate. They lost that vote 10 to 20 with 15 abstentions. It is generally agreed that the abstainers supported the amendment in principle, but the threat by the Great Powers that there would be no United Nations without the veto carried the day. The only concession was that a party to a dispute could not block discussion and proposals by the Security Council for 'peaceful settlement', but beyond that, any of the permanent members could veto proposals for action.

Having lost this fight, Evatt's next battleground was the General Assembly. The Great Powers deliberately designed a weak Assembly that would be no challenge to their authority. A key limitation conceived in the Dumbarton Oaks proposals was that the Assembly could discuss principles and questions, but not make recommendations on specific cases or matters before the Security Council. Evatt's counter-argument was that the proposals didn't recognise the importance of social and economic factors, which lay outside the collective security mandate of the Security Council. In an outflanking move, Evatt circulated an amendment that would give the Assembly the right to consider and recommend on 'any matter affecting international relations'. When the Great Powers rejected this, he responded by changing the wording — to give the Assembly the right to discuss anything within the scope of the United Nations Charter. The amendment as ultimately passed gave the Assembly the power to discuss anything within the scope of the Charter or 'relating to the powers and functions of its organs', except when the Security Council was actively considering the specific matter.

This was Evatt's greatest victory. The Great Powers had brought to San Francisco a design for a General Assembly with severely limited powers. Evatt persuaded them to accept the Australian government's approach and to agree to an Assembly with powers as comprehensive as those listed in the United Nations Charter. This 'put beyond dispute' the Assembly's right to fully discuss and make recommendations on two subjects, on which Australia at the time considered that international co-operation and General Assembly support was essential: full employment and dependent peoples: economic justice — at home and abroad. Evatt also participated in the formulation of the Chapter in the Charter on trusteeship, which formed the basis for the subsequent involvement of the UN in decolonisation, and he led in moving other successful amendments. In total, Australia filed 38 distinct amendments of substance, of which 26 were 'adopted without material change, adopted in principle or made unnecessary by other alterations'.

To summarise Evatt's role in San Francisco, I'll quote from three authorities. Alan Renouf characterised his performance as

of virtuoso quality: for sheer brilliance in an international forum there is nothing in Australia's diplomatic annals to surpass it. For the public, he was one of the outstanding personalities (newspaper representatives voted Harold Stassen of the United States and Evatt as the most impressive delegates). Abroad, he was loaded with praise … The reputation Evatt won for himself as the voice of Australia long endured in the United Nations. It brought great credit to his country; more than any other national leader, Evatt made Australia known universally and made it known as a country of courage, responsibility and liberalism … Deprived throughout the war of the say to which Evatt thought Australia was entitled, he had his reward at San Francisco, where Australia was heard as never before. What was of more lasting value was that when it was heard, it had something worthwhile to say.8

Cornelia Meigs described him as

the generally acknowledged leader of the whole strength of the Smaller Powers … He had come armed and girded with relentless determination to see that the rights of the lesser nations did not disappear under the shadow of the greater ones. And he had won the respect of all — great countries as well as small … His was real and brilliant statesmanship, resourceful, constructive. Yet he was no demagogue. He had the full weight of the smaller nations behind him, but he refrained from using their strength to block the proceedings of the Conference.9

Gareth Evans has said:

Evatt's … contribution to the founding of the United Nations is the stuff of which legends are made, and rightly so — especially in his fight for the rights of the smaller powers against the great powers in the respective roles of the [General Assembly] and the Security Council, and in his faith in the UN as an agent for social and economic reform and as a protector of human rights.10


This brings us to 1948. Evatt went to San Francisco with the belief that peace, lasting peace, could not be secured without justice. His concept of justice embraced economic and social justice in an international order that recognised a role for all nations. This stance flowered into the Universal Declaration on 10 December 1948. The respect Australia won from its moment in the sun among other nations was manifest in Evatt's election as President of the Third Session on 21 September 1948, rewarding him with the honour of presiding over the adoption and proclamation of the Declaration.

What can you say about the Universal Declaration? The Australian Delegation wrote: The Declaration will have great moral force as a standard, and helps to explain the general references to human rights contained in the United Nations Charter. At the same time, the Australian delegation has stated that a covenant and measures of carrying out and enforcing rights should be completed as soon as possible … Australia has from the beginning been one of the leaders in this field. We urged at the Paris Peace Conference that the peace treaties with enemy states should contain effective guarantees of human rights. We have also played our part from the beginning as a member of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights which made the first draft of the convention. Australia was one of the first countries to urge that economic and social rights should be included in the Declaration.11

Evatt himself said:

It was the first occasion on which the organised community of nations had made a declaration of human rights and fundamental freedoms. That document was backed by the authority of the body of opinion of the United Nations as a whole and millions of people, men, women, and children all over the world, would turn to it for help, guidance and inspiration.12

Dubbed by Eleanor Roosevelt as 'the international Magna Carta of all mankind', it is a statement of great moral principles.13 The principal drafter, Professor John Humphrey, later reflected that 'No other act of the United Nations has had anything like the same impact on the thinking of our time'.14 In presenting the annual address in honour of Jessie Street in this place two years ago, former High Court Justice Mary Gaudron said that it is 'arguably the most important document ever reduced to writing, whether on paper, papyrus, velum or tablets of stone'.15


The nobility and grandeur of the Universal Declaration cannot be questioned. However, let me conclude with two notes of caution. First, the moral and rhetorical power of the Universal Declaration is now so strong, it would be foolish to imagine that this has escaped the notice of publicists on behalf of the factions within today's powers who are prepared to support armed international interventions in pursuit of their own self-interest. Almost all the calls for armed intervention in the recent era have been justified in some way or another by appeals to humanitarian public opinion, even though human rights have more often than not been incidental to the purpose of the interventions, which may have actually made the humanitarian situation worse. As an historian, I would agree with a recent comment by the distinguished British historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who said that the 'diffusion of values and institutions can hardly ever be brought about by a sudden imposition of outside force, unless conditions are already present locally which make them adaptable and their introduction acceptable'.16

Secondly, the Universal Declaration is, in the round, a statement about equality. We live in a world that is once again marked by terrible and perhaps unwinnable wars. Moreover, I think that I have heard more public references to the Great Depression in the last few weeks than over the rest of my lifetime put together. I recently noticed an editorial in the New York Times by the labour secretary in the Clinton administration, Robert Reich, in which he noted that the top 1 per cent of earners in the US now take home an incredible 20 per cent of the national income. As recently as 1980, the top 1 per cent took home only 8 per cent. Reich noted that the last time the top 1 per cent took home 20 per cent was 1928.18 Similar trends have been noticed in Australia. Notwithstanding the great improvement in living standards in China and India, larger inequalities have been noticed on a global basis.

The conjunction of war and inequality would have not come as a surprise to the Doc. On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of his time as President of the General Assembly, I think we would be wise to heed the basic message that drove him in all his international achievements. 'No system of security can ever be permanent', Evatt said, 'unless it has an adequate basis in economic justice.'


Christopher Sheil is the President of the Evatt Foundation. This is the text of his address to the United Nations Day Luncheon, hosted by the United Nations Association of NSW, Parliament House, Sydney, 24 October 2008.



1. This address draws on research from Hogan, Ashley, Moving in the Open Daylight: Doc Evatt, an Australian at the UN, Sydney University Press in association with the Evatt Foundation (forthcoming: 2008). All uncited quotations are fully sourced in that volume.

2. Ross, L., John Curtin; A Biography (Macmillan, Sun Paperbacks, 1983), p. 327.

3. 'The Post-war Settlement in the Pacific', address delivered by Dr H. V. Evatt at the Overseas Press Club, New York, 28 April 1943, cited in Plant, J., 'The origins and development of Australia's policy and posture at the United Nations Conference on International Organization, San Francisco, 1945' (PhD thesis, ANU, 1967), p. 405 (see Hogan op. cit.).

4. Evatt, H. V. 'Australia and America: University of California Charter Address March 1945' in Evatt, H. V., Australia in World Affairs (Angus and Robertson: Sydney, London, 1946), p.15 [see Hogan op. cit.).

5. Hudson, W. J., Australia and the New World Order: Evatt at San Francisco, 1945 (ANU: Canberra 1993), p. 7 [see Hogan, op.cit.).

6. Evatt, H. V., 'Untitled Draft' (Evatt Collection, Flinders University: Publications, UN), p. 5.6 (cited in Hogan, op. cit.).

7. Lee, D., 'The Curtin and Chifley Governments, Liberal Internationalism and World Organisation', Lee, D & Waters, C. (eds), Evatt to Evans: The Labor Tradition in Australian Foreign Policy (Allen & Unwin: Sydney, 1997), p. 51 (cited in Hogan, op. cit.).

8. Renouf, A., Let Justice be Done: The Foreign Policy of Dr H. V. Evatt (University of Queensland Press: St Lucia, London, New York, 1983), p. 235 (cited in Hogan, op. cit.).

9. Meigs, C., The Great Design: Men and Events in the United Nations from 1945 to 1963 [Little, Brown and Company, 1964], pp. 49-50 (cited in Hogan, op. cit.).

10. Evans, G., 'The Labor Tradition; A View from the 1990s', in Lee & Waters, op. cit. 13.

11. 'The Work of the Australian Delegation to the Third Session of the General Assembly' (Evatt Collection, Flinders University: United Nations - Australian Delegation to the General Assembly, cited in Hogan, op. cit.).

12. General Assembly, Official Records, 3rd Sess, 1st part, 181st Plenary Mtg, 10 December 1948, p. 875, cited in Harper, N. & Sissons, D., Australia and the United Nations (Manhattan Publishing Company: New York, 1959), p. 255 (see Hogan, op. cit.).

13. Mrs. Roosevelt was speaking on behalf of the Declaration in the General Assembly when she called it 'the international Magna Carta of all mankind'. The Declaration was unanimously adopted later that night, 10 December, 1948.

14. Humphrey, J. P., 'The UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights', in Luard, E. (ed.), The International Protection of Human Rights (Frederick A. Praeger Publishers: New York, 1967), p. 9 [see Hogan, op. cit.).

15. Gaudron, M., 'Remembering the Universal Declaration and Australia's human rights record', Address to the Jessie Street Trust, Parliament House, Sydney, 3 March 2006 (Available on the Evatt Foundation website, at:

16. Hobsbawn, E. J., Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism (Little, Brown Book Group, Abacus Paperback, 2008), p. 11.

17. Reich, R. J., 'Saved by the deficit', New York Times, 9 October 2008.


Suggested citation

Sheil, Christopher, 'The Doc, the UN & the UDHR', Evatt Journal, Vol. 8, No. 4, November 2008.<>


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