Study Guide

On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Quotes

By Eleanor Roosevelt

  • Rights vs. Privileges

    The long and meticulous study and debate of which this Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the product means it reflects the composite views of the many men and governments who have contributed to its formation. (1)

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was designed to guarantee all people basic freedoms simply because they are human beings, and creating it was no easy task.

    Lots of folks came together and had to work through their different opinions to find some sort of common ground. When you think about it, the very act of creating the document was a basic right. All humans everywhere should be free to determine how they're treated, and participating gave all member nations that freedom.

    It is a Declaration of the basic principles of human rights and freedoms, to be stamped with the approval of the General Assembly by formal vote of its members, and to serve as a common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations. (43)

    Too often in the past, certain basic human rights—the rights to life and liberty, for example—have been viewed as privileges for a certain few. That's how millions of people died in the Holocaust and how millions more throughout history have been victims of dictatorial governments.

    Any type of government that doesn't protect its people isn't doing its job, and the declaration was trying to prevent those governments from wreaking havoc on innocent people.

    We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. This Universal Declaration of Human Rights may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere. We hope its proclamation by the General Assembly will be an event comparable to the proclamation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man by the French people in 1789, the adoption of the Bill of Rights by the people of the United States, and the adoption of comparable declarations of different times in other countries. (44-46)

    We bet you had already heard of all three of those documents before you read (or listened to) this speech. That's because they're all significant to the fight for equality and human rights. Eleanor Roosevelt mentions them in "On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" because she believes that this, too, will be remembered forever as a significant moment in human history.

    Ideally, the declaration would mean that human rights violations around the world would stop happening, and everyone would live happily ever after. Unfortunately, we know that's not quite what happened.

    This must be taken as testimony of our common aspiration first voiced in the Charter of the United Nations to lift men everywhere to a higher standard of life and to a greater enjoyment of freedom. Man's desire for peace lies behind this Declaration. (48-49)

    There were 58 members of the United Nations when the Commission on Human Rights was working on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That's a whole lot of people, with lots of different ideas, but one thing they all had in common was the desire to avoid another worldwide conflict like World War II. The only way to do that was to dictate, once and for all, the basic rights all people deserve because no one would be truly free until things like the right to life stopped being privileges.

    This Declaration is based upon the spiritual fact that man must have freedom in which to develop his full stature and through common effort to raise the level of human dignity. We have much to do to fully achieve and to assure the rights set forth in this Declaration. But having them put before us with the moral backing of 58 nations will be a great step forward. (54-56)

    You all know by now that nothing in life is easy—at least, not anything really worthwhile. And that was especially true when it came to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    It wasn't perfect on a number of levels, and it wasn't international law, but what's important is that for the first time in human history, all the countries of the United Nations were fighting for the same thing. The declaration was pretty simple at its core: all people deserve basic rights, no matter what. It didn't automatically guarantee they'd have them, but it provided a foundation for each country to build on.

  • Freedom and Tyranny

    The Soviet amendment to article 20 is obviously a very restrictive statement of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. It sets up standards which would enable any state practically to deny all freedom of opinion and expression without violating the article. (20-21)

    One of the big problems that came up throughout the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the conflict between individual rights and state rights—i.e., Cold War conflicts between the Western world and the Soviet Union.

    In communist countries like the USSR, freedom of opinion was not exactly encouraged, and including such a restriction in the declaration was viewed by the majority of member states as a violation of human rights—and that's not what anyone wanted.

    Certain provisions of the Declaration are stated in such broad terms as to be acceptable only because of the provisions in article 30 providing for limitation on the exercise of the rights for the purpose of meeting the requirements of morality, public order, and the general welfare. (31)

    While all the members of the United Nations couldn't agree on everything, they were on the same page when it came to tyranny: it's bad. But in some cases, that's where agreement ended, so most of the articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are pretty broad and open to interpretation so as not to step on any political toes.

    However, Article 30 was included at the very end to put a bit of a limit on things so governments would be held accountable if they took any action that denied basic freedoms to any group of people.

    In giving our approval to the Declaration today it is of primary importance that we keep clearly in mind the basic character of the document. It is not a treaty; it is not an international agreement. It is not and does not purport to be a statement of law or of legal obligation. (40-42)

    Here's the rub—after all the work that had been put into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it wasn't actually legally binding. Instead, it served "as a common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations" and provided essentially a how-not-to guide for people who might get any bright, tyrannical ideas.

    The central fact is that man is fundamentally a moral being, that the light we have is imperfect does not matter so long as we are always trying to improve it...we are equal in sharing the moral freedom that distinguishes us as men. Man's status makes each individual an end in himself. No man is by nature simply the servant of the state or of another man...the ideal and fact of freedom—and not technology—are the true distinguishing marks of our civilization. (51-53)

    The Golden Rule exists for a reason—treating others the way you'd want to be treated is simple, and it's the very least our fellow humans deserve. Plus, morals are kind of what makes us human, and they don't differentiate based on skin color, religion, or country of origin. Recognizing that we have a responsibility to one another is one of the hallmarks of freedom, and that understanding heavily influenced the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

  • Memory and the Past

    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. (2-4)

    No matter how long they talked about it, no one was going to get everything they wanted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It just wasn't possible with so many different political ideologies at the table, and extending the process to another session wasn't going to change that.

    We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. This Universal Declaration of Human Rights may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere. (44-45)

    You can find more information about the Magna Carta in the "Compare and Contrast" section of the guide, but it was the first document in history that guaranteed basic rights to a group of people. Those freedoms may have only applied to English barons, but it was still a (small) step in the right direction. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights had the potential to be equally as significant and to not adopt it would be a big mistake.

    We hope its proclamation by the General Assembly will be an event comparable to the proclamation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man by the French people in 1789, the adoption of the Bill of Rights by the people of the United States, and the adoption of comparable declarations at different times in other countries. (46)

    In other words, Eleanor Roosevelt hopes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be as influential as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the Bill of Right—both of which are the very foundations of constitutional governments in France and the United States. They influenced many of the articles in the declaration, including the rights to life and liberty. Read more about the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the Bill of Rights in the "Compare and Contrast" section of the guide.

    Man's desire for peace lies behind this Declaration. The realization that the flagrant violation of human rights by Nazi and Fascist countries sowed the seeds of the last world war has supplied the impetus for the work which brings us to the moment of achievement here today. (49-50)

    The Holocaust exposed a serious weakness in the international community. There wasn't any rule or law that explicitly stated genocide was, you know, illegal—probably because it was something so many people felt didn't really need to be said. But we learned our lesson the hard way, and the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were two big efforts to correct that error and stop mass murder and human rights violations from ever happening again.

    We have much to do to fully achieve and to assure the rights set forth in this Declaration. But having them put before us with the moral backing of 58 nations will be a great step forward. (55-56)

    Nice try, but that is not all, folks.

    In fact, the work has only just begun. History is complicated, especially the stuff that influenced the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and a single (super important) document isn't going to fix all the problems. The fact that 58 nations were able to agree on so much in the complex field of human rights is worth celebrating, so long as everyone remembers there's still work left to be done.