A “Long Job Finished”
FIFTY years ago, a grandmotherly-looking woman spoke up, and the world listened. It happened in Paris on December 10, 1948. The United Nations General Assembly was gathered in the recently built Palais Chaillot when the chairwoman of the UN Commission on Human Rights rose to give a speech. In a firm voice, Eleanor Roosevelt, the tall widow of former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, told those assembled: “We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind, that is the approval by the General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
After she read the ringing phrases of the Declaration’s preamble and its 30 articles, the General Assembly adopted the document.a Then, to honor Mrs. Roosevelt’s exceptional leadership, the UN members gave “the First Lady of the World,” as she was affectionately known, a standing ovation. At the end of that day, she jotted down: “Long job finished.”
From Many Opinions to One Declaration
Two years earlier, in January 1947, soon after the UN commission’s work had begun, it became clear that writing a human rights document agreeable to all UN members would be a formidable task. From the start, deep disagreement mired the 18-member commission in endless disputes. The Chinese delegate felt that the document should include the philosophy of Confucius, a Catholic commission member promoted the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, the United States championed the American Bill of Rights, and the Soviets wanted to include the ideas of Karl Marx—and these were just a few of the strong opinions expressed!
The commission members’ ongoing bickering tried Mrs. Roosevelt’s patience. In 1948, during a lecture in Paris at the Sorbonne, she mentioned that she used to think that raising her large family had tested the limits of her patience. However, “presiding over the Commission on Human Rights required even more forbearance,” she reportedly said, to the delight of her audience.
Even so, her experience as a mother evidently proved useful. At the time, one reporter wrote that Mrs. Roosevelt’s handling of the commission members reminded him of a mother “presiding over a large family of often noisy, sometimes unruly but basically good-hearted boys, who now and then need firmly to be put in their places.” (Eleanor Roosevelt—A Personal and Public Life) By adding graciousness to firmness, though, she was able to win points without making enemies of her opponents.
As a result, after two years of meetings, hundreds of amendments, thousands of statements, and 1,400 rounds of voting on practically every word and every clause, the commission did produce a document listing the human rights to which it believed all men and women, everywhere in the world, are entitled. It was named the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thus was accomplished a mission that, at times, seemed impossible.
Of course, it was not expected that the walls of oppression would crumble at the sound of this first horn. Yet, the adoption of the Universal Declaration did cause high expectations. The UN General Assembly’s president at the time, Dr. Herbert V. Evatt of Australia, predicted that “millions of men, women, and children all over the world, many miles from Paris and New York, will turn for help, guidance, and inspiration to this document.”
Fifty years have elapsed since Dr. Evatt spoke those words. During that time, many have indeed looked to the Declaration as a guide and used it as a yardstick to measure the degree of respect for human rights around the world. As they did so, what did they find? Are the UN member states measuring up to this yardstick? What is the situation of human rights in the world today?
a Forty-eight countries voted in favor, none against. Today, however, all 185 UN member nations, including those that abstained in 1948, have endorsed the Declaration.
[Box on page 4]
What Are Human Rights?
The United Nations defines human rights as “those rights which are inherent in our nature and without which we cannot live as human beings.” Human rights have also been described as the “common language of humanity”—and fittingly so. Just as the ability to learn to speak a language is an inborn quality that makes us human, there are other inborn needs and qualities that set us apart from other creatures on earth. For instance, humans have a need for knowledge, artistic expression, and spirituality. A human who is deprived of filling these basic needs is forced to live a subhuman existence. To protect humans against such deprivation, explains a human rights lawyer, “we use the term ‘human rights’ instead of ‘human needs’ because legally speaking the word ‘need’ is not as strong as the word ‘right.’ By calling it a ‘right’ we elevate the satisfying of human needs to something every human being is morally as well as legally entitled to.”
[Box/Picture on page 5]
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Writer and Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called the Universal Declaration the “best document” ever written by the UN. A glance at its contents shows why many agree.
The Declaration’s basic philosophy is laid down in Article 1: “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.”
On this foundation, the framers of the Declaration secured two groups of human rights. The first group is outlined in Article 3: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” This article forms the basis for man’s civil and political rights listed in Articles 4 to 21. The second group is based on Article 22, which states, in part, that everyone is entitled to the realization of the rights “indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.” It supports Articles 23 to 27, which spell out man’s economic, social, and cultural rights. The Universal Declaration was the first international document to recognize this second group of rights as being included in basic human rights. It was also the first international document to use the term “human rights” at all.
Brazilian sociologist Ruth Rocha explains in plain language what the Universal Declaration tells us: “It doesn’t matter what race you are. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, what your religion is, what your political opinions are, what country you come from or who your family is. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor. It doesn’t matter what part of the world you come from; whether your country is a kingdom or a republic. These rights and freedoms are meant to be enjoyed by everyone.”
Since its adoption, the Universal Declaration has been translated into over 200 languages and has become part of the constitutions of many countries. Today, however, some leaders feel that the Declaration needs to be rewritten. But UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan disagrees. One UN official quotes him as saying: “Just as there is no need to rewrite the Bible or the Koran, there is no need to adjust the Declaration. What needs to be adjusted is, not the text of the Universal Declaration, but the behavior of its disciples.”
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan
UN/DPI photo by Evan Schneider (Feb97)
[Picture on page 3]
Mrs. Roosevelt holding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Mrs. Roosevelt and symbol on pages 3, 5, and 7: UN photo