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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It reflects well on the United Nations of that era that so much trust was placed in Malik. He was no diplomatic hack. He had earned a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard in the 1930s, after studying with Alfred North Whitehead and then with Martin Heidegger in Germany. He was called from his career as a philosophy professor in Lebanon to serve as U.N. ambassador, at a time when no one -- including Malik, himself -- was quite sure what that role would entail. Glendon tells us that in early deliberations, he would explicate the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas to bemused fellow delegates. But he won their respect with his patience and parliamentary skill in steering acceptable compromises through a succession of fractious debates.

Even on philosophical disputes, however, there were other delegates prepared to join or counter Malik at a high level of discussion. Glendon gives special credit to China's P.C. Chang (who had also earned a doctorate in philosophy, studying under John Dewey at Columbia) and France's Ren Cassin (a distinguished jurist who was already serving as president of the Conseil d'Etat, the very French counterpart to the U.S. Supreme Court). Along with strong advocates from the Philippines and several Latin nations, these men left distinctive imprints on the ultimate text of the Universal Declaration. None of the framers, Glendon shows, were mere prattlers.

But can the political grasp of these visionaries still command our respect? Chang was arguing the fine points of the human-rights declaration as Mao's army was overrunning his country. Did he think the Universal Declaration would help protect citizens of Red China? Glendon does not pursue this obvious and seemingly quite pertinent inquiry.

At the very time that he was honing the language of the Universal Declaration, Charles Malik was also serving as unofficial spokesman for the Arab League in U.N. debates on the future of Palestine. Malik doggedly opposed a separate Jewish state but insisted that in an Arab-ruled Palestine, there would be "absolute protection of Jews and no discrimination whatsoever." In fact, at the same time Malik was offering his diplomatic assurances, Azzam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League, promised "a war of extermination and
a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades."

Malik lived to see his own country torn by brutal sectarian conflict, then occupied and controlled by Syria, one of the world's most ruthless despotisms. Did Malik, a Lebanese Christian, have any real understanding of the Arab world? Glendon does not take up the question of whether Malik found the Universal Declaration any help for Lebanese Christians or any other minority group or individual in that part of the world.

Ren Cassin had followed Charles de Gaulle to London in 1940 and achieved prominence in postwar France as de Gaulle's prot g . Glendon tells us that Cassin made a total break with de Gaulle after the French president shifted to a pro-Arab position in 1967 and tried to cement this new posture with derogatory remarks about Jews. On Glendon's telling, Cassin was genuinely startled by de Gaulle's capacity for ruthless pursuit of French national interest -- after he had spent a quarter century in de Gaulle's entourage. For Cassin, French national vanity was entirely consistent with strong internationalism: "The more I am French," he proclaimed in 1968, "the more I feel a part of humanity." But he was "shocked" by "the scandalous politicization" of U.N. agencies. Were he living today, he would, no doubt, again be shocked to find France intriguing at the United Nations on behalf of Saddam Hussein and the perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda.

Even Eleanor Roosevelt, for all her supposed realism, was distressed when President Truman launched his famous "Truman Doctrine" (offering aid to Greece, Turkey, and other countries resisting communism) without consulting the United Nations. She believed the United Nations would be a force for peace and stability which could contain the Cold War if only the United States would work within the U.N. system. This was not exactly prescient.

Great visionaries may be entitled to great blind spots, and to point out their human failings does not discredit their work. But it may remind us that Glendon's history, in displaying the admirable qualities of the drafters, does not establish the admirable quality of their product. And Glendon is not very convincing in her efforts to defend the value of the Declaration on broader grounds.