Study Guide

On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Historical Context

By Eleanor Roosevelt

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Historical Context

It Was the Worst of Times, It Was the Worst of Times

There's really no way to accurately describe just how bad the years leading up to—and the years including—World War II were. Especially not in a few short paragraphs.

So we're going to lay some knowledge on you with the expectation that you'll do some outside research of your own. (Don't worry, we'll link it out for you). We'll give you the quick 'n' dirty version, and you can figure out the slower—but no less filthy and horrific—details. Here goes:

In the years leading up to World War II, the whole world was having a pretty horrible time. There was a crazy economic depression that wreaked havoc in the United States and all over the world, which made it super difficult for countries like Germany to make any real progress in recovering from World War I.

Also: as part of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had to take complete responsibility for the war and pay massive reparations.

And there's no more fertile breeding ground for xenophobic totalitarianism than an economically depressed, recently vanquished country.

Enter Adolf Hitler. He became chancellor of Germany in 1933, and it took him about five minutes to give himself lots of power. Germany became a fascist state, with all the militarism, nationalism, and complete disregard for human rights that fascism entails.

Hitler unapologetically roasted the United States and other Western countries for putting Germany in such a tight economic spot, but there was plenty of hate and anger to go around. The Germans trained this extra hate and anger on the Jewish population of Europe (as well as the LGBTQ, communist, disabled, and Roma populations) and started killing them off in the systematic genocide known today as the Holocaust.

When the Allies finally made it into Germany in 1945 and started liberating the concentration camps, they were horrified by what they found. More than 6 million Jews had been murdered during the Holocaust, plus another 5 million people (the aforementioned LGBTQ/communist/disabled/Roma populations, as well as political prisoners). (Source)

The United Nations

You would think that the liberation of the concentration camps would make people band together and immediately vow to never let such horrors occur again. But that's not exactly what happened.

Unfortunately, even after World War II ended, there were still lots of things to fight about. The United States and the Soviet Union were buddies when Nazi Germany was the enemy, but suddenly the two countries—due to their radically different economic and political outlooks—didn't see much point in playing nice.

Also? Thousands of Jews and members of other displaced populations needed somewhere to go and start over, but no one was particularly welcoming. Not even after the Holocaust.

So, yeah, everything wasn't suddenly peachy keen. The world was pretty much in shambles, but after seven years and 60 million deaths, the idea of another big war was a super unpleasant idea for literally everyone. At the very least, they all agreed fighting needed to be avoided in the future.

That's where the United Nations comes in.

The U.N. was designed to promote international cooperation to, essentially, keep everybody in line and avoid another mustachioed fascist going crazy with power. In more official lingo, the U.N. works to maintain international peace and security, promote human rights, foster social and economic development, protect the environment, and provide humanitarian aid in the event of famine, natural disaster, or armed conflict.

But for lots of people, including Eleanor Roosevelt, the human rights part of the mission was the most significant.

Even before she became first lady in 1933, Roosevelt was a humanitarian, and she'd spent time working for the American Red Cross during World War I. Then, after her hubby was elected president, she continued to speak out about human rights and women's issues, and FDR's successor, Harry Truman, definitely took notice.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In 1945, President Truman appointed Roosevelt as a delegate to the U.N. General Assembly, which is the group within the U.N. that's responsible for creating new policies. Before long, she became the chair of the Commission on Human Rights, and they met for the first time in 1947 to begin drafting some sort of international human rights document.

But, of course, nothing's that easy.

The Commission on Human Rights had to meet three times before the 58 member nations approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—and the Soviet Union was advocating hard to push the approval back to a fourth meeting.

Roosevelt was having none of that.

Throughout "On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," she emphasizes the importance of what the commission was trying to accomplish. It wasn't about politics because a certain form of government shouldn't interfere with someone's basic rights.

After the horrors that everyone had seen throughout World War II, Roosevelt believed the delegates had a moral responsibility to approve the declaration—which, sure, wasn't perfect.

But it was a start, and it was an important step in preventing something as horrific as the Holocaust from happening again.

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