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We hope that you haven't had to spend a lot of time thinking about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We hope that you feel securely guaranteed the right of "security of person," that you know that you'll never be "subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," and that you're snug and cozy in the reality that you'll never be "subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile."
But you know what else we hope for you? That you'll now spend a lot of time thinking about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Because there are tons of people out there whose human rights are being violated, even though the document has been around for 70 years.
When World War II ended in 1945, the international community had to figure out how to stop an atrocity like the Holocaust from ever happening again. And so they turned to the obvious man for the job—a woman. Eleanor Roosevelt, who had made a career out of proving that women had the smarts and know-how to wheel and deal in politics along with the boys, was the poster child of human rights.
When President Truman appointed her as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations, she couldn't turn it down…especially considering one of the organization's primary goals was to create an international document to protect and guarantee basic human rights. And the U.N. loved Roosevelt—so much so, they unanimously elected her to chair the Commission on Human Rights in 1946.
The former FLOTUS rolled up her sleeves and got to work. The committee was made up of representatives from 58 nations, and they all worked together to draft a document with the essential rights and freedoms all people should have—no matter what country they lived in or the government they lived under.
As chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights, Roosevelt spent a lot of time playing mediator—and a lot of time as the voice of reason when countries with different types of governments started getting a little testy because they disagreed on certain articles.
And because of those disagreements, the process of officially adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights took almost three years—and from Roosevelt's point of view, this snail's pace was super unnecessary and completely inexcusable.
When Roosevelt gave her speech, "On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," in December 1948, that's exactly what she focused on. She talked about how, for the first time in human history, 58 countries, all with very different political and philosophical beliefs and practices, got together and outlined the basic rights all people should have—no exceptions.
She also emphasized how approving it was a no-brainer. All the representatives wanted to prevent genocide and mass murder, so Roosevelt had no more time for disagreements over word choices in certain articles. As far as she was concerned, the time for debate was long over. And, in her speech, she constantly reminded the delegates that they should focus on the significance of the process:
It is a significant fact that 58 states have found such a large measure of agreement in the complex field of human rights. (47)
It was definitely something to celebrate. But the question is, 70 years later, has the Universal Declaration of Human Rights done its job?
When it was finally approved on December 10th, 1948, the day after Roosevelt gave this speech, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wasn't international law, and it still isn't today. So, while it was significant to have so many countries working together on issues of human rights, there wasn't any legal obligation associated with the declaration.
And because y'all are students of history, you can probably come up with a number of violations that have occurred throughout the last 70 years—genocides and famines and civil wars, the very things the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was made to prevent.
That said, the United Nations and other international organizations have worked hard to address human rights violations around the world. And the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while not a binding treaty, has inspired other international human rights laws, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the right to life and the freedoms of religion and speech.
See what we mean by "yes" and "no"?
But it seems like Roosevelt knew solving issues related to human rights wouldn't be easy. She said as much in her speech, that while creating the document was well and good, it didn't mean the work was done.
Even Harry figured it out at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—the conflict between right and wrong is something humans deal with on a perpetual basis. So while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an important historical document, people have to choose to enforce it all day, every day.
And it's been clear in the years since that that's easier said than done.
Because you're a good person who believes that all humans deserve basic rights.
It's a no-brainer…or it should be. Humans should be treated with a modicum of respect. All adults deserve some autonomy. Nobody should be forced into marriage or servitude, or prison without trial. Torture and genocide should be abolished.
But somehow, human rights violations continue around the globe. Many people are living under horrible conditions, their lives in danger every single day, their basic rights trampled. For people in places like Syria and South Sudan, certain human rights are all but nonexistent.
And if you think that, because you live in a country that acknowledges human rights, you shouldn't care about the fate of people in other nations, you're wrong. In her speech "On the Acceptance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," Roosevelt acknowledged the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the first step in a long process. But she believed that without jumping in and really working for equality and dignity for all people, the world wouldn't ever become a peaceful place.
If you want more info—and you should—check out Human Rights Watch's reports. They're not fun reading, but they are important and eye-opening. And who knows, maybe reading them will inspire you to work toward the aim of universal human rights.
"My Day" by Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt had a syndicated newspaper column from 1936 until she died in 1962. She wrote about her thoughts on important issues of the time, like the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
National First Ladies' Library: Eleanor Roosevelt
Take a look at this biography of Eleanor Roosevelt—and feel free to explore the lives of some of the other famous first ladies of the United States.
Eleanor, First Lady of the World
This biographical film was nominated for two Golden Globes and features actress Jean Stapleton, who played Birdie in Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail.
American Experience: Eleanor Roosevelt
Are you a real historical figure if PBS doesn't do a show about your life?
Mike Wallace Interview With Eleanor Roosevelt
Mike Wallace was a well-known journalist who interviewed many celebrities and politicians. He sat down with Eleanor Roosevelt in 1957.
From One Democrat to Another
In 1961, Eleanor Roosevelt interviewed JFK about the Peace Corps. You might need to turn your volume up just a little bit.
"On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights"
Take a listen to Eleanor Roosevelt's delivery of this speech before the Commission on Human Rights in Paris. She's pretty fired up in some parts.
On Pearl Harbor
In the hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Eleanor Roosevelt addressed the nation with a speech she wrote herself.
World War I: Eleanor Roosevelt
In all her spare time, Eleanor Roosevelt volunteered with the American Red Cross and boosted morale during World War I—all while she had five young kids and a husband at home.
Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart
One of the most famous aviators of all time gave the first lady a ride from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore in 1933.
Eleanor Roosevelt and JFK
President John F. Kennedy reappointed Eleanor Roosevelt to the U.S. delegation to the U.N. in 1961.