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One of the first major achievements of the United Nations, the adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, occurred on December 10, 1948. The committee that formed to draft the Declaration was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, a lifelong champion of civil and human rights.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s passion for humanitarian issues preceded her commitment to creating a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Where her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, tended to exercise restraint when it came to human rights issues at home and abroad, Eleanor Roosevelt was a staunch, vocal supporter of these causes.
Franklin Roosevelt’s approach to the pre-World War II Jewish refugee crisis is often criticized by historians. Many make the case that the President should have used a stronger hand to influence Congress and the State Department, which strictly adhered to America's conservative immigration laws and quotas.
But much of the United States supported these stringent laws – between WWI and WWII, anti-Semitism peaked in the country, and the public favored isolationism in regard to international affairs.
Like many people of her time, Eleanor Roosevelt also expressed casual anti-Semitic sentiments in her younger years. However, according to biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook, “Stunned by the depths of the problem in America, by 1935 she spoke out against anti-Semitism and race hatred wherever she found it in the United States.”
Eleanor Roosevelt became a passionate advocate for Jewish refugees and personally intervened in a number of cases to assist them. In fact, the Visual History Archive includes testimonies from Holocaust survivors who speak about reaching out to her.*
At a meeting of the Good Neighbor Committee on the Émigré and the Community in 1939, the First Lady warned the 700 attendees, “We must not let ourselves be moved by fear in this country. We have seen that happen too many times in other countries. Sometimes I worry about the possibility that we will follow their example.”
According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Roosevelt’s greatest regret at the end of her life was not using her influence over the President to rescue more refugees.
The United Nations was established in 1945, two months after the end of the Second World War, to promote international cooperation and to prevent such a devastating conflict in the future. As a result of her devotion to humanitarian causes – and to some extent her husband’s instrumental part in laying the foundation for the organization – Roosevelt was appointed by President Harry Truman to serve on the first U.S. Delegation to the U.N. General Assembly.
In her syndicated “My Day” column, Roosevelt responded to the appointment on December 22, 1945. She stated her priorities for her new role, including a sense of responsibility especially toward women and veterans of the war, as well as her desire to help foster “a real goodwill for all peoples throughout the world.”
“Willy nilly, every one of us cares more for his own country than for any other. That is human nature,” she observed, adding:
We love the bit of land where we have grown to maturity and known the joys and sorrows of life. The time has come however when we must recognize that our mutual devotion to our own land must never blind us to the good of all lands and of all peoples.
In the end, as Wendell Willkie [the Republican presidential candidate who ran against Franklin Roosevelt when he sought his third term] said, we are ‘One World’ and that which injures any one of us, injures all of us. Only by remembering this will we finally have a chance to build a lasting peace.
When the U.N. created the Commission on Human Rights in 1946, Roosevelt won a unanimous election to serve as the committee’s chair. The commission was charged with examining, monitoring and publicly reporting on human rights violations around the world. Additionally, the commission established the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Drafting Committee.
Also chaired by Roosevelt, it was up to this subcommittee to define the rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.
As the world came to terms with a full understanding of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as noted in its preamble, strove to “[reaffirm] faith in fundamental human rights, and dignity and worth of the human person."
Over the course of two years, the drafting committee – representing 56 nations around the world – endured intense negotiation and ideological differences to hammer out the 30 articles that eventually comprised the landmark agreement.
As chair of the drafting committee, Roosevelt played a fundamental role in ensuring passage of the Universal Declaration Human Rights. Her speech, The Struggle for Human Rights, was delivered in September 1948 in Paris, with the aim to encourage U.N. member states to cast votes in support of the document.
Roosevelt implored the audience:
The future must see the broadening of human rights throughout the world. People who have glimpsed freedom will never be content until they have secured it for themselves. In a truest sense, human rights are a fundamental object of law and government in a just society. Human rights exist to the degree that they are respected by people in relations with each other and by governments in relations with their citizens.
While the Declaration of Universal Human Rights is not a legally binding document, it has served as a basis for national and international human rights laws and conventions since its adoption by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948.
*Visual History Archive
Survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides have shared their stories and experiences in a collection of 53,000 two-hour audio-visual interviews with the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History.
ProQuest is honored to be in partnership with the USC Visual History Archive to offer this material in its entirety to a broader audience and to contribute archival-quality transcripts of all of the testimonies.
Watch the videos, and learn more.
Module: Struggle for Women's Rights, Organizational Records, 1880-1990. Learn more.
Instaread. No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin | A 15-minute Summary & Analysis, edited by Instaread , 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Emblidge, David, and Eleanor Roosevelt. My Day, edited by David Emblidge, and Eleanor Roosevelt, Da Capo Press, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Lichtman, Allan J., and Richard Breitman. FDR and the Jews, edited by Allan J. Lichtman, and Richard Breitman, Harvard University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central.
“Mrs. Roosevelt charges intolerance drive against refugees and seeks fund sources.” (1939, Nov 29). New York Times (1923-Current File). pp. 1.
Kenton, John. Special to THE NEW, YORK TIMES. (1948, Dec 11). “Human rights declaration adopted by U.N. assembly.” New York Times (1923-Current File).pp. 1.
Human Rights Online:
Alexander Street’s research and learning database providing comparative documentation, analysis, and interpretation of major human rights violations and atrocity crimes worldwide from 1900 to 2010. The collection features primary and secondary materials across multiple media formats and content types, including 151 hours of streaming video and 60,249 pages of text materials.