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Eleanor Roosevelt


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights


At the conclusion of World War II (1945), after the Yalta conference, the Allies issued a charter that came to be known as the Nuremberg Principles.  The document set forth the following;  that wars of aggression were a crime against international society;  that any nation that persecutes, oppresses, does violence to individuals or minorities, on political, racial, or religious grounds in connection with such a war, and by such means, seeks to exterminate, enslave or deport civilians, commits a crime against humanity.              


The Nuremberg Principles applied to belligerent action commencing with war, it did not apply to similar atrocities committed during peacetime within national boundaries; it did not apply to governments that subjugated its own people to such violence.                 


As delegates from nations across the globe convened in San Francisco, in 1945, to begin discussions for the drafting of the charter of the future United Nations, they brought with them an unspoken hope, of adopting similar principles-- specifically those that President Roosevelt had often cited in his radio talks during the war, directed at the American people—the “four freedoms”.  This, however, was not what these delegates found, the major powers had no interest in supporting such principles for fear that it would create a mandate within their national boundaries.  There was no desire for the great powers to be bound by examination by the international community.  To the shock of the United States and the USSR,  Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” had established a wider audience, that would not so soon forget, the voiced hope for a different and more just world.  So in this vein, the 'third world diplomats', representing the Philippines, Mexico, and  other Latin American nations, made it known that a Human Rights commission needed to be established.                   


The driving force that would lead to the declaration of human rights, was born.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, it continues to be cited as the noblest of the United Nations’ agreements.  It has been used as the source for ninety constitutions, various national constitutions, and is often referenced by journalists, governments, human rights activists and citizens worldwide, who fight against atrocities on behalf of mankind.  The document was the work of the 1946 Human Rights Commission, made up of diplomats from Australia, Belgium, Byelorussia, Chile, China, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Lebanon, Panama, Philippines, Ukraine, USSR, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, and Yugoslavia.  However it was mainly conceptualized by five individuals;


Peng-chun Chang, a Chinese philosopher, playwright and diplomat;

Dr. Charles Malik, a Lebanese existentialist philosopher and diplomat, who was a former student of Alfred North Whitehead and Martin Heidegger;  

Rene Cassin, a French legal scholar, who had established the legal framework for the exiled Free French government during WWII; 

John Humphrey, a Canadian legal scholar;  and

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of deceased President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.                 


The drafting of the declaration’s language was a long drawn out tedious affair.  Its language had to deal with issues of conflicting political views, and immense cultural differences.  Chang and Malik are credited as the intellectual architects, Cassin and  Humphrey, gave the document its legal structure, and Eleanor Roosevelt was its spiritual guiding force.  It was Roosevelt who exerted a firm hand, held the delegates unified in purpose, by seeing the drafting of the declaration to its conclusion and subsequent adoption.                        


Eleanor Roosevelt expressed the hope that the Declaration would surpass the importance of prior historical documents such as;  the Magna Carta, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, drafted during the French Revolution of 1789, and the U.S. Bill of Rights.  In fact, the Universal Declaration goes beyond these earlier documents and includes “freedom from want”; that such freedoms must not be conditioned by espousing particular political beliefs, membership in a particular nation,  social origin,  race or gender.  It declares freedom of opinion as inviolable, and mandates free elementary education.  It also heralds social and economic rights, thus going beyond the U.S. constitution’s established rights.


The principles and language of the Declaration became a focus of discussion and criticism in a conservative United States.  Frank Holman, President of the American Bar Association declared the document as a manifesto “which promoted state socialism” and other American voices along with his, led American debate on the document’s viability as not worthy of adoption.  The late 1940’s  were imbued with a climate of the early cold war, just prior to the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950's.  Had it not been for Eleanor Roosevelt’s dynamism and vision, the U.S. would not have aligned with the rest of the world in adopting the document.  In fact John Foster Dulles, then at the State Department did all he could to derail its adoption. 

At the election of Dwight Eisenhower, Eleanor Roosevelt  tendered her resignation from the UN Human Rights Commission, and American diplomacy suffered as a result.  Further international agreements, such as the Genocide Convention would not be ratified by the United States until 1988 during Ronald Reagan’s administration. The Genocide Convention had been ratified by the majority of nations in 1948.




Posted  September  23, 2004

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