The thing to remember about "On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" is that it's not a victory speech.
(We know Eleanor Roosevelt's entire career trajectory is in itself a victory, but that's a whole other story.)
When she stood in front of the Commission on Human Rights in 1948, she was less than pleased. They'd all been hanging out for way too long considering what they were trying to accomplish. As far as the former FLOTUS was concerned, giving the go-ahead to a history-making document focused on protecting human rights shouldn't even be a question, and she offers tons of logic to support her point of view.
As of 1948, there were 58 members of the United Nations, and they all had different ideas of what a government should look like. Sometimes those differences led to a few awkward situations—namely when certain countries (cough Soviet Union cough) used those differences as an excuse to avoid giving their stamp of approval to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But this wasn't Roosevelt's first rodeo, and she was quick to knock the dissenters on their keisters by acknowledging that no government "can have what [they] want in a document of this kind. There are of course particular provisions in the Declaration before us with which we are not fully satisfied. I have no doubt this is true of other delegations, and it would still be true if we continued our labors over many years" (2-4).
Can you hear the implied "obviously" in there, or is it just us?
The Commission on Human Rights was completely unprecedented, and even the United Nations itself was swimming in uncharted waters. Its precursor, the League of Nations, had floundered and failed largely because of an unwillingness to compromise on certain issues, and Roosevelt wasn't going to let that happen with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
She unapologetically says the Soviet delegation was imposing on the General Assembly to talk again about making amendments to certain articles, and Roosevelt is "confident that they will be rejected without debate" (17).
In other words, enough is enough, and they need to get the show on the road.
Roosevelt dedicates the first half of her speech to meticulously laying out the Soviet amendments and immediately debunking them. And the naysayers might insist that this is all about those Cold War politics, but for Roosevelt, human rights are more important than any government. She believes "the Declaration, which has been worked on with such great effort and devotion, and over such a long period of time, must be approved by this Assembly at this session" (30).
And hold on to your hats, friends, because the logic train doesn't stop at that station.
Take a hot second to read through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Do you see how wide ranging and general the articles are?
Roosevelt doesn't hesitate to mention that in her speech, that "certain provisions of the Declaration are stated in such broad terms as to be acceptable only because of the provisions in article 30" (31), which says no one can do anything to violate the rights and freedoms listed in the previous articles.
Remember how we said there were 58 member nations, and they were all super different when it came to how their governments functioned? Well, the only real way to create a document that would work for everyone was to keep it general, and Roosevelt believed the broad language already addressed much of what the Soviet Union was concerned about.
It was open to interpretation—and, of course, this fabulous former FLOTUS offers proof of that, too.
Roosevelt talks about how, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "everyone has the right to equal access to the public service in his country" (32). But in the United States, any guy or gal who dreams of being an evil overlord wouldn't have access to public employment in the name of keeping the United States and its people safe.
And for her and most of the other member nations, that's what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was all about—keeping people safe from the kind of "flagrant violation of human rights by Nazi and Fascist countries" (50).
The basic principles of the document were sound, and Roosevelt believed the General Assembly had done its job and assigned proper restrictions while simultaneously keeping in mind the diverse governments involved in the process.
Logically, there's nothing else to do but approve the darn thing and make it official because the "basic character of the document [...] is a Declaration of basic principles of human rights and freedoms" (43), and that's what was most important.
We've all been there—your friend knows that you'll be up all night if you watch The Shining before bed, but you insist they're wrong. That is, until you're staring wide-eyed at the ceiling convinced there are a couple of creepy twin girls waiting in the hallway.
Eleanor Roosevelt's "On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" is sort of like that (minus the twin girls, thankfully).
Her speech begins with a lecture/warning, where she addresses issues the Soviet Union has already brought up, and she warns her audience that continuing to rehash old problems will only delay the inevitable approval of the declaration. The world literally can't afford that—everyone is still recovering from World War II, and no one wants to risk another genocide simply because no one recognized good advice when they saw it.
But do they ever listen? Well, sort of.
The General Assembly decided Roosevelt has a point, and they approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the next day. However, certain countries—namely those that favored communist ideologies—abstained from voting, and many of them ended up requiring humanitarian aid from the United Nations when the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s.
That's why you should always listen to good advice—both when it comes to Kubrick movies at bedtime and adopting international human rights declarations.
As much fun as it has been to draft the document, Roosevelt is ready to give the Universal Declaration of Human Rights an official stamp of approval…even if everyone doesn't get exactly what they want.
The Soviets need to chill when it comes to making the same suggestions over and over again. The committee recognizes that the Soviet bloc and the Western world have different ideas of what equality means and how to go about achieving it, but waiting for another session to approve the declaration isn't going to magically make things better.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights isn't international law, so there's room for interpretation. But Article 30 was written in order to keep everyone in line.
For the first time in human history, everyone is coming together to talk about the basic human rights all people deserve. That's super significant, and while there's still work to be done, the declaration is a really good start.
This one is pretty straight-forward, at least on the surface.
But you know by now how much we love digging down to the good stuff beneath the surface.
When Eleanor Roosevelt gave this speech in Paris, she was a wee bit frustrated. The delegation was just finishing up its third meeting but somehow was still quibbling over the same things. The Soviets wanted to give lots of power to the state, whereas the United States and other Western nations were more focused on the individual.
It was a regular ol' battle of wills—the kind that would become super familiar to everyone throughout the Cold War.
From our perspective, looking back on it, "On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" seems like a victory speech. Sure, the Soviets and the Western nations disagreed on some fundamental things, but all in all, everyone came together to draft a document protecting the basic rights of all people. That's definitely something to celebrate.
But it goes deeper than that. "On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" was a not-so-subtle nudge to all the delegates to get the show on the road because at the time of this speech, the declaration hadn't been accepted yet.
Roosevelt reminds the delegates that they aren't going to agree on everything—and that's not even politics. That's just humans. What's important is acknowledging the significance of the declaration, an international agreement saying freedom and increased quality of life aren't privileges but basic human rights. And all 58 member nations did agree on that.
The long and meticulous study and debate of which this Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the product means that it reflects the composite views of the many men and governments who have contributed to its formulation. Not every man nor every government can have what he wants in a document of this kind. There are of course particular provisions in the Declaration before us with which we are not fully satisfied. I have no doubt this is true of other delegations, and it would still be true if we continued our labors over many years. (1-4)
Eleanor Roosevelt isn't mad, per se. She's just very disappointed.
Roosevelt takes time in the beginning of her speech to remind everyone that there are lots of different players in this game with different ideas of how to run things. That's all well and good in their own countries, but there has to be some acknowledgement that no one country is going to get everything they want in a document like this, no matter how many sessions they have.
In other words, she has gone over all of this before, and yet certain countries (cough Soviet Union cough) are digging in their heels over a few differences in opinion, and those differences should be less important than creating and adopting an international statute to preserve and protect basic human rights.
In conclusion, I feel that I cannot do better than to repeat the call to action by Secretary Marshall in his opening statement to this Assembly:
"Let this third regular session of the General Assembly approve by an overwhelming majority the Declaration of Human Rights as a standard conduct for all; and let us, as Members of the United Nations, conscious of our short-comings and imperfections, join our effort in good faith to live up to this high standard. (59)
Eleanor Roosevelt quotes Secretary of State George Marshall at the end of "On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" not because she's tired and hates writing conclusions but because he had made such an excellent point.
In order for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be as successful as the delegation intended, they needed to not only approve it but approve it by a large majority. Largely because it wasn't international law, the declaration needed lots of support, and those who gave it the go-ahead had to be prepared to live up to that standard.
Of course, both Secretary Marshall and Roosevelt recognized that human beings are filled with imperfections so, of course, everything wasn't going to be hunky-dory as soon as the declaration was adopted. But it was the thought that counted—everyone had the responsibility to do their best to observe the articles and guarantee these basic rights to all people.
Don't be fooled by how short this speech is—there's a lot to unpack here.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a rock star, and while "On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" isn't full of lots of $5 words, she manages to include lots of information on the various articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights along with references to the people and places involved in putting the document together.
You're going to have to put in a little extra research to get the full picture, but we promise you it's worth it. (We also promise we've done the heavy lifting when it comes to that research. You're welcome.)
Eleanor Roosevelt was best buds with Amelia Earhart. Okay, maybe not total besties—but they did fly together in 1933. (Source)
First lady, a U.S. delegate to the United Nations, chair of the Commission on Human Rights...and an actress? That's right! Roosevelt starred in a margarine commercial in 1959. (Source)
Oh, yeah, you can also add "writer" to Roosevelt's extensive and impressive resume. She wrote a couple of books in all her spare time. (Source)
From 1935 until 1962, Roosevelt had a syndicated newspaper column for which she wrote six articles every week. (Source)
Roosevelt was good friends with a journalist named Lorena Hickok—and some people suggest they might have been more than friends. (Source)