American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man Is Adopted

The Ninth International Conference of American States, which established the Organization of American States (OAS), adopted the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. While the declaration failed to prevent human rights abuses by American dictatorships in the near term, it was a landmark document in the history of human rights, preceding even the United Nations declaration on the subject.

Summary of Event

From March 30 to May 2, 1948, the Ninth International Conference of American States met in Bogotá, Colombia, to consider a wide range of agenda items. Perhaps the most consequential outcomes of the conference were the signing of the charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the signing of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. The latter event was significant in that it was the first international declaration on human rights, preceding the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was signed later the same year. American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man
Ninth International Conference of American States (1948)
Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations
Organization of American States
[kw]American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man Is Adopted (May 2, 1948)
[kw]Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man Is Adopted, American (May 2, 1948)
[kw]Rights and Duties of Man Is Adopted, American Declaration on the (May 2, 1948)
[kw]Duties of Man Is Adopted, American Declaration on the Rights and (May 2, 1948)
American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man
Ninth International Conference of American States (1948)
Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations
Organization of American States
[g]Latin America;May 2, 1948: American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man Is Adopted[02470]
[g]Colombia;May 2, 1948: American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man Is Adopted[02470]
[c]Human rights;May 2, 1948: American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man Is Adopted[02470]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;May 2, 1948: American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man Is Adopted[02470]
Marshall, George C.
[p]Marshall, George C.;and Latin America[Latin America]
Lleras Camargo, Alberto
Betancourt, Rómulo

The conference was notable not only for what it achieved but also for the social and political context in which it was held. The assassination in 1948 of Liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who had been denied a seat in the Colombian delegation to the conference, triggered rioting and accelerated the period of violence, called La Violencia, Violencia, La that engulfed Colombia from 1946 to 1958. The rioting put the capital city in chaos, and the turmoil spread to other cities in Colombia. While the military defended the government, the national police took arms with the antigovernment Gaitán supporters. The military and the government prevailed, but not before thousands had died.

Foreign Minister Laureano Gómez Gómez, Laureano was a Conservative rival to Gaitán and opened the conference as its president. The April, 1948, disturbances prompted the relocation of the conference to a more secure site in the outskirts of Bogotá. Colombians, in the midst of profound threats to their lives and security, thus hosted a conference that eventually affirmed the right to life, liberty, and personal security.

The origins of the 1948 declaration date at least as far back as the 1936 Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Peace Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Peace (1936)[InterAmerican Conference for the Maintenance of Peace] , at which a proposal affirming the right to life, liberty, and freedom of religion, as well as the duty of states to protect those rights for all, was considered but rejected. In early 1945, the American states met in Mexico City for the Inter-American Conference on Problems of War and Peace Inter-American Conference on Problems of War and Peace (1945)[InterAmerican Conference on Problems of War and Peace] . Among the results of that conference was a call for the development of a declaration on the international rights and duties of man. In the preamble to the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (1947)[InterAmerican Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance] (the “Rio Pact” of 1947), signatories affirmed the importance of the protection of human rights but did not bind themselves to upholding them.

Responding to the call of the Mexico conference, the Inter-American Juridical Committee Inter-American Juridical Committee[InterAmerican Juridical Committee] developed a draft resolution, the final version of which was presented to the Ninth International Conference. In the preparation of this document, much of the debate centered on the degree to which it would be legally binding. Some states, including Guatemala, Uruguay, and Brazil, sought effective enforcement mechanisms and strong language concerning human rights. The United States, among others, urged more moderate language, successfully opposing, for example, a statement on the right of resistance to oppression. On the question of the right to health, the U.S. delegation successfully inserted a statement disavowing any preference between public and private health care systems.

During the drafting of the declaration, central questions concerned whether the statement would have the force, and enforcement mechanisms, of a treaty, and whether human rights should be extensively incorporated into the Charter of the Organization of American States. Most states, including the United States, favored a nonbinding declaration with no enforcement mechanisms. On the question of the charter, most states held the view that it should be confined to matters of organizational purpose, structure, and function. The OAS Charter does, however, make some mention of human rights, most notably in article 5(j), which states: “The American States proclaim the fundamental rights of the individual without distinction as to race, nationality, creed or sex.” The preamble to the charter proclaims a desire for “individual liberty and social justice based on respect for the essential rights of man.”

Despite such rhetoric found in the charter, the Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man is a more definitive statement on human rights. Approximately three hundred officials, representing all twenty-one member states, attended the Bogotá conference to consider, among other documents, the charter and the draft declaration. The United States delegation was led by Secretary of State George C. Marshall. Marshall stayed for the majority of the nearly five-week-long conference, indicating the priority of such matters on the foreign policy agenda of President Harry S. Truman. Alberto Lleras Camargo, director-general of the Pan-American Union and soon to be secretary-general of the new Organization of American States, was also a delegate to the conference. The subcommittee concerned with the rights and duties of man was chaired by Chile’s Enrique Bernstein Bernstein, Enrique . Former (and later) Venezuelan president Rómulo Betancourt headed his country’s delegation.

The final declaration was adopted as Resolution 30 of the Final Act of the Conference and was signed on May 2, 1948. The preamble to the declaration asserts that “all men are born free and equal” and notes the interrelationship of rights and duties: “While rights exalt liberty, duties express the dignity of that liberty.” The declaration contains thirty-eight articles, twenty-eight of which proclaim the rights of people and the remaining ten of which describe the duties of individuals.

Among the rights affirmed by the declaration are those to life, liberty, and personal security; to equality before the law; to religious freedom; to a family and its protection, specifically protection for mothers and children; to residence and freedom of movement; to the preservation of health; to education; to take part in the cultural life of the community; to work and to receive fair remuneration; to social security; to enjoy basic civil rights; to a fair trial; to vote; to assemble peaceably; to petition; and to protection from arbitrary arrest. Those duties spelled out by the declaration include those toward children and parents; to vote; to obey the law; to serve the community and nation; to pay taxes; to work; and to refrain from political activities in another country.

The declaration thus considers the rights and duties of humanity to be social, political, and, to some degree, economic. Many of the principles spelled out in the declaration are also contained in the constitutions of various American states, a fact that the declaration observes. Resolution 31 of the Final Act, which was unsuccessfully opposed by the United States, sought to create an inter-American court to guarantee human rights and thereby enhance the possibilities of implementation of the declaration. This resolution called upon the Inter-American Juridical Committee to prepare a draft statute creating the court, to be presented to the Tenth Inter-American Conference.

Resolution 32, supported by the United States and consistent with the nascent cold war atmosphere of the postwar era, effectively endorsed the efforts of several Latin American nations to outlaw Communist parties. The years preceding the declaration had seen a hesitant and, as it turned out, short-lived movement in several Latin American nations toward the establishment of broader political rights, at least among non-Communist parties and their members. Nowhere was this trend better exemplified than in Venezuela, which between 1945 and 1948 experimented with popular democracy under the leadership of Rómulo Betancourt and his Acción Democrática party.

Venezuela’s first free elections were held in 1947, and the populist Acción Democrática won a resounding victory. Peasants seeking land and all those seeking the right to a voice in government saw the election as a harbinger of a brighter future. A military coup Revolutions and coups;Venezuela in 1948, however, delayed the reality of Venezuelan democracy for another decade, forced many of Acción Democrática’s leaders underground and into exile, and led to the brutally repressive dictatorship of General Marcos Pérez Jiménez Pérez Jiménez, Marcos . This triumph of dictatorship in many ways set the tone for Latin American governments for years to come.


The American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, for the precedent that it set, was a landmark statement. By the time the document was signed, however, the momentum toward meaningful civil and political rights begun in 1945 and 1946 had slowed considerably. Dictatorships in such places as Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic not only survived but, by 1948, seemed to be strengthened as well. The Somoza family dynasty in Nicaragua, launched in the 1930’s, would last until the 1979 revolution. Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic would control that country until 1961.

Leslie Bethell notes that although many Latin American nations at the time were respectful of the right to vote in elections, in most such “democracies” the rights of reformists and leftists were severely curtailed. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the declaration did not take the form of a more potent and controversial convention or treaty. Although not possessing the legal power of a convention or a treaty, the declaration did clarify hemispheric goals with respect to human rights and laid the groundwork for the United Nations Universal Declaration. As a symbolic gesture, if not a substantive one, the document was an important contribution to human rights in the inter-American system.

The human rights situation in the Americas did not improve dramatically in the years following the declaration. While the late 1950’s and early 1960’s appeared to be, in the words of one observer, the “Twilight of the Tyrants,” the human rights situation worsened considerably under the many military governments of the late 1960’s and 1970’s. In any case, the commitment of the American states to the principles laid down in the declaration did not appear noticeably stronger in the years following its signing. The Inter-American Juridical Committee chose not to pursue the matter of an inter-American court after the Ninth International Conference, deciding that such a body would be a premature addition to the inter-American system. The declaration did become the precedent, however, for several more potent documents and structures with regard to human rights in the hemisphere. American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man
Ninth International Conference of American States (1948)
Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations
Organization of American States

Further Reading

  • Ball, M. Margaret. The OAS in Transition. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1969. An amply documented, legalistic description of the creation of the Organization of American States which gives appropriate attention to the development of human rights in the years leading up to and following the creation of the OAS. Footnotes, index, bibliography, appendixes.
  • Bethell, Leslie. “From the Second World War to the Cold War, 1944-1954.” In Exporting Democracy: The United States and Latin America, edited by Abraham F. Lowenthal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991. Insightful overview of a crucial period in U.S.-Latin American relations, noting the inconsistencies in U.S. support for democracy in the region at the time of the signing of the declaration. Footnotes, index included.
  • Claude, Richard Pierre, and Burns H. Weston, eds. Human Rights in the World Community. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989. Several of the articles in this volume are useful for placing the American Declaration and other aspects of inter-American human rights into a broader international and comparative perspective. The selection coauthored by Weston explicity compares the inter-American system with other regional approaches. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Harris, David J., and Stephen Livingstone, eds. The Inter-American System of Human Rights. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Anthology of essays exploring the history and status of human rights in the Americas and the international treaties and laws designed to enforce those rights. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Inter-American Institute of International Legal Studies. The Inter-American System: Its Development and Strengthening. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana, 1966. Straightforward, legalistic presentation of international law in the Americas, with an extensive chapter devoted to human rights and representative democracy. Useful appendixes and bibliography. No index.
  • Melish, Tara. Protecting Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the Inter-American Human Rights System: A Manual Presenting Claims. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Law School, 2002. A practical guide to the inter-American human rights system and its functioning in the early twenty-first century. Bibliographic references.
  • Slater, Jerome. The OAS and United States Foreign Policy. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1967. Examines the uses to which the United States has put the OAS, noting the positions taken with respect to dictatorship, democracy, and other facets of human rights. Critical and at times cynical toward the patterns of U.S. foreign policy. Bibliography, index included.
  • Thomas, Ann Van Wynen, and A. J. Thomas, Jr. The Organization of American States. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963. Considers the structure, principles, and functions of the OAS, including its role in the development of an inter-American system of human rights. The chapter discussing democracy and human rights pays particular attention to the American Declaration. Appendixes, footnotes, and index included.

Organization of American States Is Founded

United Nations Adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Nixon Faces Riots on Tour of Latin America

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Is Created

Cuban Missile Crisis

Inter-American Court of Human Rights Is Established