The Magazine

The Legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

May 28, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 35 • By JEREMY RABKIN
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MARY ANN GLENDON HOLDS A DISTINGUISHED CHAIR at Harvard Law School. Yet she has published such eloquent protests against the moral arrogance of judges and lawyers as Rights Talk and A Nation Under Lawyers. She served as the Vatican's representative to the U.N.'s major international conference on women in 1995. Then, she published a set of sober cautions about feminist bias and partisan dogmatism in human-rights advocacy.

Glendon's latest book, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, might be understood as an effort to combine her interests -- rescuing human-rights talk from its contemporary abuses by redirecting attention to its nobler origins. Among other things, Glendon offers a group portrait of the diplomats who were, in effect, the founders of international human-rights protection. Her book's chief merit is to vindicate the seriousness and sincerity of these founders, showing how they drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and secured its adoption by the United Nations in 1948.

But A World Made New has a corresponding defect. By focusing so closely on the founders and their ideals, it avoids submitting those ideals to the lessons of subsequent experience. In effect, Glendon asks us to judge these founders without much scrutiny of what they actually founded. In this way, Glendon's well-meaning book preserves many of the evasions or (as it seems to me) sheer delusions of the political leaders she writes about.

By chronicling the drafting of the Universal Declaration, Glendon gives drama and immediacy to a pivotal moment in international diplomacy. Glendon has studied memoirs and letters of the participants as well as official records, and she has uncovered Soviet records from the period. She weaves these new details into a fascinating and well-paced account.

We learn, for example, that Stalin's representatives at the United Nations were never sure what stance to take toward the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Lacking clear instructions from Moscow, Communist delegates generally contented themselves with sniping from the sidelines. In the end, they could not vote in favor of the Declaration but did not feel they could vote against it, either. They simply abstained -- as did South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and a few other states.

Thus, Glendon shows, it was not a desire to accommodate the Soviets that led the framers of the Declaration to include broadly worded guarantees of economic and welfare entitlements. These guarantees were already contained in the working documents from which the Declaration was honed. The initial staff report was prepared by John Humphrey, a Canadian law professor who privately described himself as a "socialist" -- though not a particularly doctrinaire one. (He confided to his diary that "socialism is a technique and nothing more. What we need is something like the Christian morality without the tommyrot.")

Compared with most other participants, Eleanor Roosevelt, the leading American representative to the Human Rights Commission, comes across in Glendon's account as much more down to earth, much more focused on immediate diplomatic challenges, and much more serious about the difficulties of securing broad international cooperation in this field. She was well aware that the United States Senate was not likely to ratify a formal human-rights treaty. She therefore persuaded other delegations that the United Nations should start its human-rights advocacy with a non-binding declaration of principles (a measure that would require no action by the Senate).

As it turned out, Mrs. Roosevelt was prescient about the difficulties. It would take twenty years before the United Nations could agree on detailed provisions to implement the Universal Declaration in treaties that would (ostensibly) be binding international law. (The United States would ratify none of them until the early 1990s, and then only with severely constraining reservations.) Even while working on a non-binding declaration, Mrs. Roosevelt sought to curb overreaching provisions. She resisted ambitious guarantees of worker rights, for example. Glendon reports that she also resisted demands for what now would be called "gender inclusive language."

Despite her special mention in the book's subtitle, however, Eleanor Roosevelt is not quite the leading character in Glendon's story. A World Made New gives equal attention -- and more credit -- to Lebanon's ambassador, Charles Malik. He served successively as rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights when it drafted the Declaration; then as chairman of the Economic and Social Council when it polished that draft; and finally as chairman of the wider U.N. committee that presented the Declaration to the General Assembly (where the Universal Declaration was finally adopted in December 1948).