Constance M. McGovern

The tale begins in the spring of 1945, when a war-weary world began to prepare for peace, and dream of freedom. The delegates of 50 nations who gathered in San Francisco that April forged a charter for the United Nations that pledged each nation to promote the rights of all individuals. No one had yet defined those rights, nor did anyone venture to explain how to cut the Gordian knot of national sovereignty and the international protection of individual rights.

The whole idea of inalienable human rights might have stopped with the U.N. Charter’s proclamation had not an extraordinary assemblage of people been willing to commit their time, energy and passion to craft a statement on human rights that not only transcended national ideologies, but that the General Assembly of the United Nations passed without a dissenting vote. The writing and passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is all the more amazing when one realizes that from the moment of the Human Rights Commission’s first meeting in London in January 1946 to the U.N. vote in December 1948, the Anglo-American friendship floundered over British colonialism, Churchill challenged the Iron Curtain as the Soviets ignored the Declaration on Liberated Europe, Americans fought Communism in western Europe through the Marshall Plan, the Soviets launched a blockade against their former allies in Berlin, the civil war between Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces and Mao Zedong’s Peoples Liberation Army raged and war erupted in Palestine. The Grand Alliance of World War II had exploded into the cold war.

Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University and a distinguished author and commentator, tells the story of the remarkable birth of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in this race against time. Glendon captures the sense of urgency and the absorbing commitment of a cast of players, most prominent among whom were the first lady of the world Eleanor Roosevelt, the international jurist René Cassin of France, the philosopher Charles Malik of Lebanon and the philosopher and diplomat Peng-chun Chang of China. Glendon celebrates as well the contributions of John Humphrey of Canada and the director of the U.N. Division of Human Rights, Carlos Romulo of the Philippines, whose insistence that lesser powers be heard brought colonialism to the forefront; Mrs. Hansa Mehta of India, whose advocacy of women’s rights led to their inclusion; Hernan Santa Cruz of Chile, whose fervor for social and economic rights inspired others; and Alexei Pavlov of Russia, whose dogged adherence to the Kremlin line nevertheless led the Soviets to abstain rather than vote against the final declaration. The real heroes of this scripture of the modern human rights movement, though, are Roosevelt, the patient parliamentarian; Cassin, the dynamic, adept craftsman of documents; Malik, the eloquent Thomist philosopher; and Chang, the Confucian peacemaker and compromiser. Each understood they must create a document that would become a geodesic dome of interlocking principles with truly universal application.

They faced a Herculean task. Immediately, Soviet-style economic claims for the state clashed with Western-style capitalist views of individual competitive rights, as the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the natural rights of the person conflicted with Eastern communitarian values. Procedural disputes about creating simultaneously a declaration and a covenant highlighted thinly veiled posturing in the postwar world. The United States wanted an empty declaration, the British sought an empty covenant, and the Soviet Union wanted neither (and sometimes filibustered so long that Roosevelt simply gaveled the end of a meeting). Smaller nations challenged the influence of the major powers, and pragmatists argued with philosophers. The debates over social and economic rights proved the most thorny. The United States acquiesced only to promote the right to work, while the Soviets believed only a Communist state could, and should, guarantee that right. References to God brought recriminations about Westernization, while discussing the right to choose national identity brought resistance from the Soviets.

Despite these disagreements, misunderstandings, personal quirks, national rivalries, and colonial resentments, Roosevelt, Cassin, Malik and Chang led the commission to create a stunningly tight document consisting of a preamble that proclaimed the unity of all the races of humankind and 30 articles of political, civic, economic and social rights.

Cassin’s careful structuring of the document, as much as his international reputation as a jurist and dynamic personality, contributed immensely to the commission’s success. He, more than anyone else, understood the importance of internal logic and unity in the document. He carefully avoided the extremes of capitalist individualism and socialist collectivism, even as he balanced his commitment to a Jewish homeland (he had lost 29 relatives in concentration camps) with his respect for Malik’s work on the commission and role as chief spokesman for the Arab League. Malik, a Thomist at heart, was the most eloquent of debaters and inept like a fox, because he understood that repeated and long discussions ultimately allowed everyone to find ownership in the declaration. His close but stormy relationship and profound philosophical debates with Chang broadened the concept of truly universal human rights. Chang, whose wisdom was reflected in his admonitions against too much Western ideology and suggestions to subdue people with goodness, saved many a moment.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in all this is subtly more problematic. Roosevelt herself disclaimed any significant role in the writing of the declaration; she simply filled the teacups and sat back to be entertained by the talk of Humphrey, Chang and Malik. Yet as Glendon points out, Roosevelt kept the project moving along and, even more important, with her access to Truman, kept the United States on board. More than just the force of the Roosevelt name and the Roosevelt commitment to universal freedoms, she brought her own standing as a public figure, one who was so highly respected that as Johannes Morsink says (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent, 1999), only she could have been an effective buffer between the two Cold War camps without undercutting American support for the declaration. Roosevelt exercised infinite patience. She lobbied and cajoled; she compromised and fought, according to Blanche Wiesen Cook, her most recent biographer, and she used her considerable capacity to debate extemporaneously as effectively as she practiced her deep respect for every person. Not only was she a skilled parliamentarian, an effective politician who understood and exercised power, and a visionary; she was a person of towering unselfishness without whom, Charles Malik proclaimed, I do not see how...we could have accomplished what we actually did accomplish.

What Roosevelt, Malik, Cassin, Chang and the others achieved for the world’s people was a living document, as Dag Hammarskjold proclaimed on the 10th anniversary of the declaration, a document whose principles have entered the consciousness of the world. A few years later, Pope John XXIII lauded the declaration as an act of the highest importance that, Adlai Stevenson noted, had shaped the aspirations and influenced the consciences of nations.

But the declaration was breached. As the cold war deepened, both American and Soviet support diminished as each cast recriminations at the other in their struggle for the minds and hearts of third world nations. The Bandung Conference and the new leadership of the People’s Republic of China in the 1950’s expressed deep anti-Western sentiments; and even today governments use human rights rhetoric in their own self-interest.

Yet the declaration has become part of the constitutions of emerging nations, including nearly half the African nations freed from European colonialism in the 1950’s and 1960’s. It has toppled totalitarian governments in eastern Europe and in South Africa, it has inspired the European and Inter-American Courts of Human Rights and it has laid the basis for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Its greatest achievement is not only its moral force (which is considerable), but its legal forceits incorporation into national legal systemsa development, as Glendon so splendidly acknowledges, that is hard to overestimate. No longer can nations unilaterally violate the human rights of their citizens; because of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, nations are now accountable to others for the way they treat their own people. Glendon’s lively and astute account helps us to understand how precarious was the birth of the Declaration of Human Rights and how brilliant the spirit of its creators.

Constance M. McGovern, who has written on American social and womens history, is a professor of history at Frostburg State University in Maryland