Mahatma Gandhi's Seminal Ideas Underpinned the Adoption of the UN Charter

The notion of universality of human rights and the concept of multilateralism as the basis of the UN's work and its role as a body for all nations was inspired by Gandhi's core and foundational concepts.

As the world confronts the twin threats of COVID-19 and climate change, the imperative for a multilateral system of governence, based on the ethics borne from human rights, solidarity and environmental justice, has never been more urgent.

2019 marked 150 years since the birth of Mahatma Gandhi; 2018 marked 75 years since the adoption of the UN Declaration of Human Rights; 2019 and 2020 mark 100 years since the formation of the League of Nations; and 2020 mark 75 years since the adoption of the UN Charter.

We need to reflect on these commemorations of the lives of individuals, seminal documents and the creation of institutions. The time is opportune to examine the connections between these anniversaries from the perspective of India’s contribution to the advent of an era of global multilateralism premised on the upholding of human rights for all.

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The tenuous nature of global peace and security also compels us to revisit the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi to determine whether the concepts that underpinned his seminal contribution to a just world hold relevance today.

Five core and foundational concepts comprise Gandhiji’s contribution towards a just world: Ahinsa (non-violence); Satyagraha (truth force that guides nonviolent resistance); Sarvodaya (welfare of all); Swaraj (self-rule; freedom) and Trusteeship (custodianship of the earth and sharing of wealth and resources).

M.K. Gandhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

These seminal ideas and lessons learnt from their practice contributed to the content of the notion of universality of human rights and the concept of multilateralism as underpinning the work of United Nations as a body for all nations. This contribution is not well known and remains largely unexplored by Mahatma Gandhi’s biographers. In his writings and actions towards the freedom of India and the formation of the United Nations, Mahatma Gandhi conceptualised the fundamental principles of multilateralism: balancing the sovereignty of nations with the necessity of a global organisation; the need to build a peaceful world based on respect for non-violence and human rights; the necessity of disarmament and denuclearisation and so forth.

Mahatma Gandhi issued a statement directed at the 1945 conference in San Francisco that produced the UN Charter. One section of his statement quoted from the All India Congress Committee (AICC) resolution of August 8, 1942, says:

“The future peace, security and ordered progress of the world demand a world federation of free nations. An independent India would gladly join such a world federation and co-operate on an equal basis with other countries in the solution of international problems. Thus the demand for Indian independence is in no way selfish. Its nationalism spells internationalism.”

In the nascent years of the UN, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru instructed our representative at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, to raise the issue of racial practices against the Indian minority in South Africa. In face of fierce opposition from the Allied countries, India succeeded in challenging the ‘domestic jurisdiction’ and ‘sovereignty’ clause (Article 2(7)) of the UN Charter by having a resolution passed that sought to censure South Africa for its racist treatment of Indians living in South Africa. The victory India gained at the UNGA in 1946 opened up completely new horizons through which countries could no longer hide behind their nations boundaries and continue to violate human rights without facing a global challenge at the United Nations. The resolution that India succeeded in having adopted by the UNGA in 1945, paved the way for the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that codified the principles of universality and equality of all nations – a foundational principle of multilateralism.

Also Read: Hindutva Leaders Revile Gandhi and His Message, But Can’t Resist Basking in His Glory

India’s influence in the drafting process of UDHR 

Mahatma Gandhi also had a strong influence on our representatives that took part in the drafting process of the UDHR (Hansa Mehta, Begum Hamid Ali, Lakshmi Menon, M.R. Masani). Guided by Gandhiji’s messages that infused India’s freedom struggle in which they had all taken part, these individuals’ influenced the content of seven articles of the UDHR:

Women’s rights (India insisted on the word ‘men’ be replaced with ‘human beings’); Non-discrimination (India added the words ‘colour’ and ‘political opinion’ as criteria for non-discrimination); Freedom of movement (India added the article calling for freedom of movement within a country); The right to health (India suggested that health is much more than ‘the right to medical care’ and proposed the term ‘right to health); The right to work (India added the principle of ‘just and favourable conditions of work’); Rights and Duties (India insisted on the UDHR recognising the crucial role of duties done to rights attained) and Secularism (India’s delegates made it clear that the UDHR applied to everyone in the world and that there were millions of people who did not believe in God. The UDHR, consequently states that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed by nature with reason and conscience, and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’).

Many of the ideas that informed the content of the UDHR came from the intense debates and articulated outcomes of India’s constitutional debates. There was a one-year overlap between the meetings of our Constitutional Assembly and the process at the UN that led to the adoption of the UDHR. Hansa Mehta was both a member of the Constituent Assembly and Eleanor Roosevelt’s team at the UN Commission on Human Rights that drafted the UDHR. In turn our Constitution was also inspired, as reflected in several articles, by the UDHR.

It was in the years following the adoption of the UDHR that India, following lessons learnt from the conceptual thinking of Mahatma Gandhi, championed the cause of decolonisation. In ensuring that the UN had an influential inter-governmental body – the General Assembly – where all UN member states had an equal voice, India also made major contributions to the institutional architecture of the United Nations.

Israeli ambassador to the UN Danny Danon addresses a UN General Assembly meeting ahead of a vote on a draft resolution that would deplore the use of excessive force by Israeli troops against Palestinian civilians at UN headquarters in New York, US, June 13, 2018. Credit: Reuters/Mike Segar

Representative image of a UN General Assembly meeting. Photo: Reuters/Mike Segar

As we continue to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi’s 150-year birth anniversary, and are in the middle of commemorating 75 years of the UN, we need to proudly recognise the contribution of Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders from India to the development of multilateralism as a defining, and lasting, characteristic of the global work of the United Nations. The preponderance of conflict across the world and the now constant threat of the devastation that climate change brings compel us to recognise the contemporary relevance of the ideas of global solidarity and commonality of purpose espoused by Mahatma Gandhi.

Given the multiple crises the world faces today, from COVID-19 to conflict to climate change, can we draw lessons from the powerful ideology of non-violence and the concepts of sarvodaya that were some of the core messages of Mahatma Gandhi’s life and work? Can we not recast Gandhi’s visionary ‘balance’ between nationalism and internationalism; the necessary corrective of duties done and human rights acquired.

Miloon Kothari is a human rights scholar/activist and was a former Special Rapporteur with the UN Human Rights Council. Some of the themes covered in this article were the subject of the first UN at 75 lecture in India by the author at the India International Centre in December 2019.