Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
April 25, 1945, representatives from fifty nations convened in San Francisco to organize the United Nations. Over the course of nine weeks, the delegates debated what the scope and the structure of this new body should be. June 26, they adopted the United Nations Charter, Article 68 of which mandated that the General Assembly “set up commissions in economic and social fields and for the promotion of human rights.” In February 1946, following the opening session of the General Assembly, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) established a nine-member “nuclear” commission on human rights to recommend a structure and mission for the permanent Human Rights Commission (HRC). Unlike other commissions, however, the delegates appointed to this nuclear body would be chosen for their individual merits rather than their national affiliation.
President Harry Truman had appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to the United States delegation to the United Nations in December 1945. Soon after her return the following February from London, where the General Assembly first convened, she received a call from UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie, telling her that he had appointed her to the nuclear commission charged with creating the formal human rights commission.
April 29, 1946, at New York’s Hunter College, Henri Laugier, the assistant secretary-general for social affairs, called the first session of the nuclear commission to order. Laugier hoped the delegates would remember that “the free peoples” and “all of the people liberated from slavery, put in you their confidence and their hope, so that everywhere the authority of these rights, respect of which is the essential condition of the dignity of the person, be respected.” Their work “would start [the UN] on the road which the Charter set for it.” He concluded:
You will have before you the difficult but essential problem to define the violation of human rights within a nation, which would constitute a menace to the security and peace of the world and the existence of which is sufficient to put in movement the mechanism of the United Nations for peace and security. You will have to suggest the establishment of machinery of observation which will find and denounce the violations of the rights of man all over the world. Let us remember that if this machinery had existed a few years ago . . . the human community would have been able to stop those who started the war at the moment when they were still weak and the world catastrophe would have been avoided.
As soon as Laugier finished his remarks, Dr. C. L. Hsia, from China, nominated ER to chair the commission. All the delegates promptly endorsed his recommendation. ER, who did not anticipate this responsibility, promised to “do my best, although my knowledge of parliamentary law is somewhat limited.” She recognized “that we are all conscious of the great responsibility which rests upon us . . . . to help the United Nations achieve its primary objective of keeping the peace of the world by helping human beings to live together happily and contentedly.” Once the “nuclear” commission agreed on the structure the permanent commission should adopt, it adjourned.
ECOSOC had presented the HRC with three tasks: “a draft International Declaration, a draft covenant, and provisions for the implementation.” This was not easy work. It challenged the Commission to craft a vision, develop legally binding protocols acceptable to all member states, and structure an International Court of Human Rights. Political discord surfaced immediately, both within the Commission itself and within the American delegation.
When the permanent Human Rights Commission convened in the fall of 1946, it promptly elected ER as its chair. For the next two years, ER dedicated most of her energy to commission duties. This required fierce patience and determination.
Cold war politics frequently threatened to derail first, the drafting process, and then, the adoption itself. As the HRC debated what the three human rights protocols should contain—and when the HRC should instruct the UN to act to protect the human rights of a nation’s citizens—hyperbole erupted. American conservatives charged any human rights document crafted by the United Nations would bring socialism to America while delegates from the Soviet bloc argued that racial segregation proved that the western democracies gave only lip service to civil and political rights.
Concerns regarding national sovereignty, real or imagined, also threatened to destroy the HRC’s work. ER responded to these fears by urging the HRC to reorder its plan of work. Rather than focus on crafting a legally binding International Bill of Rights, the HRC should work on all three ECOSOC tasks simultaneously. The delegates agreed and created subcommittees for each task. They then appointed ER to chair the subcommittee charged with drafting the Declaration.
Throughout these often exhaustive debates, ER strove to remind the HRC, and ultimately the UN itself, that the Declaration must serve as a counterforce to the fear and horror exposed by World War II. She insisted that the Declaration be written in clear accessible language so that it might be readily embraced by peoples of the world. She exerted similar pressure on the U.S. State Department, arguing that for the declaration to have any impact it must not be seen as an American or western dominated document. In the process, she played the key role in convincing the State Department to expand its concept of human rights from a concept of merely political and civil rights to include economic, social, and cultural rights.
For ER, her work with the HRC provided the opportunity to address issues she championed as First Lady (poverty alleviation, access to education, conflict resolution, and civil rights) as well as the issues she addressed as a delegate to the General Assembly (refugee concerns, humanitarian relief, and the reconstruction of war-torn Europe).
She saw this as real political work rather than a mere intellectual exercise. “Many of us thought that lack of standards for human rights the world over was one of the greatest causes of friction among the nations,” she told readers of Foreign Affairs, “and that recognition of human rights might become one of the cornerstones on which peace could eventually be based.”
She viewed the crafting of the declaration as “a very grave responsibility.” The peoples of the world, many of whose lives seemed to teeter between hope and fear, “look upon us, regardless of the governments we spring from, as their representatives, the representatives of the peoples of the world, and for that reason, I hope that every one of us is going to feel, in the consideration of the question of how we constitute the full Commission and of how we recommend that the work shall be undertaken.”
Though not legally binding, ER thought the declaration could push the world away from war. If it could establish “basic standards” which would guide the United Nations in “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all,” it would have the ”moral” force necessary to “guide and [inspire] individuals and groups throughout the world . . . to promote respect for human rights.”
Responding to a wave of pressure from President Truman and Secretary of State George C. Marshall to launch a moral offensive against the USSR, she agreed to deliver a keynote address at the Sorbonne in Paris in September 1948. She titled her remarks, “The Struggle for Human Rights.”
By the time ER assumed the podium that fall, domestic politics and international tensions combined forces to hinder the Declaration’s adoption. The subcommittee had distributed its draft of the Declaration (which the Soviet bloc had not endorsed) for member nations’ review in the spring. Over the summer, the Soviets blockaded Berlin, communist-supported unions struck in Italy and France, the Arab-Israeli conflict escalated, Mao tse Tung battled nationalist forces in China, and American political parties splintered.
Calling “the preservation of human freedom” “one of the greatest issues of our time,” ER told the overflow audience the world still struggled to rebound from the violence and coercion of wartime totalitarian governments and that only the Declaration had the “moral force” to shift the discussion away from the “reaction, retreat, and retrogression” of the past.” The world must take the time “to think carefully and clearly on the subject of human rights, because in the acceptance and observance of these rights lies the root, I believe, of our chance for peace in the future, and for the strengthening of the United Nations organization to the point where it can maintain peace in the future.” 
ER’s address at the Sorbonne set the tone for the forthcoming deliberations on the drafting of the declaration. The drafting process involved eighty-five working sessions (many lasting until well past midnight) in which new delegates revisited each word of the Declaration’s thirty articles. Discussions over the right to education, to an adequate standard of living, and to old-age pensions ran late into 1948, making ER worry that the committee might not act in time to have the declaration approved by the General Assembly. She discussed these deliberations so frequently in “My Day” that her column became both a primer on human rights and a sustained call for endorsement. Indeed, she became so outspoken in her advocacy that her column took on a bluntness she rarely displayed. Increasingly frustrated with Soviet delaying tactics, she made her grievances public, telling her readers, “One would admire Soviet persistence in sticking to their point if it were not for the fact that so often the point is not worth sticking to.”
ER drove the committee hard. December 9, ER confided to her aunt:
[T]he Arabs & Soviets may balk—the Arabs for religious reasons, the Soviets for political ones. We will have trouble at home for it can’t be a U.S. document & get by with 58 nations & at home that is hard to understand. On the whole I think it is good as a declaration of rights to which all men may aspire & which we should try to achieve. It has no legal value but should carry moral weight.
The General Assembly adopted the Declaration the following day.
The following activities give students the opportunity to simulate the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Era 8: The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
Standard 3A: Demonstrate understanding of the international background of World War II.
Standard 3B: Demonstrate understanding of World War II and how the Allies prevailed.
Era 9: Postwar United States (1945-early 1970s)
Standard 3A: Demonstrate understanding of the origins and consequences of the Cold War.
Three class periods. The teaching strategy could follow Ivy Urdang’s “Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: Human Rights and the Creation of the United Nations.”
- To analyze primary sources in their historical context.
- To understand the complexity of the creation of an international document.
- To introduce students to the different perspectives neighboring nations applied when addressing the same problems
- To examine different political and religious approaches to the concept of “rights” and “citizenship”
- To analyze the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- To assess the rhetoric of the Cold War
I. Teacher Preparation: The instructor should familiarize themself with the details of the Human Rights Commission.
Date: January 27, 1947
Place: Lake Success, New York
Event: Initial Meeting of the Human Rights Commission, created by the Economic and Social Council.
Eighteen members of the commission, each chosen by his/her government as representatives. The representatives came from the following countries: Australia, Belgium, Byelorussia, China, Chile, Egypt, France, India, Lebanon, Panama, the Philippines, Ukraine, the USSR, Yugoslavia, Uruguay, the United Kingdom, and the United States. (This plan is based on a class of eighteen students; adjustments can be made by doubling the number of representatives per country.)
ER served as the U.S. representative and permanent chairman. Dr. Chang represented China and served as vice-chairman, and Dr. Charles Malik of Lebanon served as rapporteur.
D. Commission Goal
To reach an initial agreement about the articles that should be included in the Declaration of Human Rights.
II. Student Preparation
Assign each student a role as a country representative and have him or her research the challenges confronting their country. For research suggestions see the websites listed at the end of the teaching strategy. Students should use these questions as research guidelines:
- How did World War II affect your country?
- What are the major issues of concern to your country’s citizens?
- Which of these seems most pressing?
- What kind of government does your country have?
- How stable is your government?
- Are there specific issues of concern involving children, elderly people, women, minorities, refugees?
Ask the students to come to class with a list of 5 articles for consideration in the initial draft of the UDHR (Only the five officers will have read the actual declaration; it is essential that the other two delegates not see the UDHR before the second class.)
In addition to these roles as country representatives, assign three students to officer positions: ER (chairman); Dr. Chang (vice-chairman); and Dr. Malik (recording secretary).
III. First Class
Divide the class into three groups which then meet for twenty-five minutes to compare notes (in character, arguing for inclusion or omission of certain matters based on their countries’ interests) and attempt to agree on a list of ten articles for inclusion.
Instruct the three officers (who will have read the actual document and “The Promise of Human Rights” so that they will know what ER thought was most important) to fill their roles as go-betweens and mediators. No one officer should remain with their group, but float to help mediate debate.
During the last twenty minutes of class, have ER and Dr. Chang run a discussion about the commonalities in countries’ suggestions for inclusion. Instruct Dr. Malik to record the suggestions for a memo to the drafting committee. Have ER and Dr. Chang remind the delegates to focus on the concepts, not the language, since that will be the work of the drafting committee.
IV. Second Class
The students’ Human Rights Commission reconvenes to review the actual UDHR.
Have ER and Dr. Chang distribute the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the original groups, have representatives reading the articles, look at what has been included and omitted (For a link to the UDHR please see the document list at the end of this article). They should prepare to explain their reservations as well as the basis for their endorsement of the Declaration.
During the last fifteen minutes of class, have ER and Dr. Chang call the full commission to order. They should allow each representative to briefly voice the compromises that his or her country will be making for the greater good of signing the document.
V. Third Class
What would make countries agree to such a principled document?
What do you think happened to this document? What effect to you think it had? After the students have speculated about this, the teacher can talk about what actually happened.
What challenges would ER have faced as chairman of the Human Rights Commission?
VI. Homework assignment: Ask students to write a short essay summarizing their view of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its impact on the postwar world.
Black, Allida M. ed., The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers: Vol. 1: The Human Rights Years, 1945-1948 (Scribners, 2007).
Glendon, Mary Ann, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Knopf, 2000).
Humphrey, John P. The United Nations and Human Rights: A Great Adventure (Dobbs Ferry, NY, 1984).
Humphrey, John P. On the Edge of Greatness: The Diaries of John Humphrey, First Director of the United Nations Division of Human Rights, Vol. 1, 1948-49 (Montreal, 1994).
Lash, Joseph P. Eleanor: The Years Alone (Norton, 1972), 55-81.
Lauren, Paul Gordon. The Evolution of International Human Rights (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998 ,205-231
Malik, Habib C. ed., The Challenge of Human Rights: Charles Malik and the Universal Declaration (Oxford, 2000).
Morsink, Johannes. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent (Philadelphia, 1999).
The following documents may be useful:
“The Promise of Human Rights,” by Eleanor Roosevelt, Foreign Affairs, April, 1948.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
Summary Record, Fourth Meeting [excerpt], Commission on Human Rights of the Social and Economic Council, May 2, 1946. in Black, The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers: Vol. 1: The Human Rights Years, 1945-1948, 297-302.
Statement on the Purpose of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, May 26, 1948 in Black, The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers: Vol. 1: The Human Rights Years, 1945-1948, 897-898.
“The Struggle for Human Rights” Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, September 28, 1948.
My Day: February 6, 1947; June 11, 1948; June 23, 1948; October 9, 1948; November 18, 1948; November 19, 1948; November 22, 1948; November 23, 1948; November 24, 1948; November 26, 1948; November 27, 1948; November 29, 1948; November 30, 1948; December 2, 1948; December 4, 1948; December 6, 1948; December 7, 1948; December 9, 1948; December 10, 1948.
Eleanor Roosevelt Statement Before General Assembly, December 9, 1948 in Black, The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers: Vol. 1: The Human Rights Years, 1945-1948, 972-974.
The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project: https://erpapers.columbian.gwu.edu
Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission Student Information Page: http://www.humanrights.gov.au/info_for_students/index.html An Australian created, student focused site providing useful tools for understanding what human rights “mean.” Contains a frequently asked questions section, a human rights timeline, information about the UDHR, and links to HREOC homepage and resources for teachers.
Human Rights Education Associates Resource Center:http://www.hrea.org/index.php?base_id=114
A good source for student research. Provides links categorized by region or issue. “I Have a Right To….” http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/people/features/ihavearightto/index.shtml
The United Nations: http://www.un.org/
The University of Minnesota Human Rights Library: http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/
 HRC, Nuclear Commission, 1st Meeting, Summary Record, 29 April 1946, (E/HR/6/1 May 1946), 1-3, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.
 Eleanor Roosevelt, “The Promise of Human Rights,” by Eleanor Roosevelt, Foreign Affairs, April, 1948, in Allida Black, Courage in a Dangerous World: The Political Writings of Eleanor Roosevelt (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 156-168.
 Eleanor Roosevelt, “The Struggle for Human Rights” Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, September 28, 1948, in Allida Black, The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers: Vol. 1: The Human Rights Years, 1945-1948, 900-905.
 Eleanor Roosevelt, My Day, December 4, 1948 in Allida Black, The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers: Vol. 1: The Human Rights Years, 1945-1948, 962-963.
 Eleanor Roosevelt to Maude Gray, December 9, 1948, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.