Eleanor Roosevelt and the UN Declaration of Human Rights | 12 October 1948
On 9 December 1948, former first lady and political activist Eleanor Roosevelt addressed the United Nations (UN) as chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights. Building on the rights already in the UN Charter, Roosevelt explained the importance of this landmark document: “We stand today at the threshold of a great event, both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.” For the first time, fifty-eight nations signed a document which detailed fundamental and universally protected global human rights.
The seeds of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights were planted in August 1941 when Eleanor Roosevelt’s husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, met with British Prime Minister at the Atlantic Conference. During the course of World War II, world leaders continued to plan for a transition to a safe and more secure postwar world. Established in October 1945, the United Nations replaced the failed League of Nations. President Harry Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt as delegate to the new body and she became chair of the Commission on Human Rights. At its first session, the UN General Assembly charged the Commission with creation of “an international bill of rights.” The document was to be a step toward securing political, social, and economic rights on a global scale. It passed 48-0. However, eight countries – including the Soviet Union and Eastern European nations that comprised the Soviet Bloc – abstained from the vote, reflecting the Cold War tensions of the time.
Eleanor Roosevelt steered the Declaration during its two-year development, and emphasized its importance to the global struggle for peace. The Declaration consists of a Preamble and thirty articles that proclaim “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” For example, Article I states:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are
endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another
in a spirit of brotherhood.
Subsequent Articles ban slavery and the slave trade (4), forbid torture (5), require a presumption of innocence in a public trial (11), and ensure the right to privacy (12), travel (13), asylum (14), nationality (15), marriage (16), property (17), freedom of religion (18), expression (19), assembly (20), employment (23), rest and leisure (24), and education (26).
In 1950, the UN proclaimed December 10th – the day of the Declaration’s passage – to be Human Rights Day. The document continues to be the foundation for human rights law and human rights organizations around the world.
Since the Declaration itself was unenforceable in a court of law, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Human Rights Commission tried to reinforce it with a binding covenant. Members soon got bogged down in the process, and in 1952 the UN General Assembly called for the creation of two separate documents. Roosevelt did not live to see the adoption of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976). The original 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, however, remains the most influential international human rights manifesto, and a testament to the work of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Borgwardt, Elizabeth. A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.
Cmiel, Kenneth. “Review Essay: The Recent History of Human Rights,” American Historical Review 109 (Feb 2004): 117-135.
Glendon, Mary Ann. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York: Random House, 2001.
Morsink, Johannes. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.