Eleanor Roosevelt, the first head of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and leader of the initiative to adopt Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), is reputed to have prayed this prayer every night:
Our Father, who has set a restlessness in our hearts and made us all seekers after that which we can never fully find, forbid us to be satisfied with what we make of life.
Draw us from base content and set our eyes on far off goals. Keep us at tasks too hard for us that we may be driven to Thee for strength.
Deliver us from fretfulness and self-pitying; make us sure of the good we cannot see and of the hidden good in the world.
Open our eyes to simple beauty all around us and our hearts to the loveliness men hide from us because we do not try to understand them.
Save us from ourselves and show us a vision of the world made new.
The prayer captures the spirit of idealism infused with moral purpose that animated Protestants of this period and their vision for a new world that they set out to create from the ashes of World War II. Eleanor Roosevelt, appointed by Harry Truman, took up the cause of the declaration as her own after the passing of her husband in 1945. It was a role she was well equipped to undertake, and the declaration itself expresses very well Roosevelt’s own humanitarian impulses.
Formed in the aftermath of World War II’s destruction, the United Nations was intended to serve as an international police force that would bring the world’s great powers together in order to ensure peace. At least that was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s hope. Roosevelt was the primary inspiration and champion of the United Nations, though by that point America’s allies needed little convincing. Winston Churchill, never the idealist like that of Roosevelt, was less sanguine about the prospects of such an endeavor, especially because of his deep suspicions about Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. Suspicions that would turn out to be well founded.
Nevertheless, in April 1945 the Allies met in San Francisco, even while ships loaded with war materiel bound for the Pacific theater were pulling out of the San Francisco harbor. They set out to write a charter for the United Nations, which was signed in June of that year. Of the many distinctive features of the UN Charter, the emphasis upon human rights in the preamble was especially noteworthy.
Eventually a committee headed by Eleanor Roosevelt drafted, revised, and submitted a document entitled “The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.” Mary Ann Glendon’s well documented biography of the declaration’s drafting and passage, A World Made New, follows the characters and twists and turns that brought about its eventual passage by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948.
Interestingly, though not surprising given its context, the declaration is focused primarily on the individual and not the collective. Unlike contemporary critics who see individual rights as insufficient to ensure justice, Roosevelt and the drafting committee strategically chose individual rights because they sought to extend the reach of the declaration’s claims as far and as wide as possible. Rather than specifying the form of government or the means by which rights would be respected, they chose to focus upon the ends of ensuring the freedom and dignity of the person while leaving the means to governments.
The United Nations Charter ratified the notion of the nation-state and national sovereignty as the basis upon which the new stable and free world order would be built. Yes, you read that correctly. The progressives of that era sought to bolster the nation as the bulwark of freedom and justice in the world. In Chapter I Article 2 of the Charter, the “sovereign equality” of all states is the basis for membership in the organization. Why? Strong nations, it was believed, would be able to create conditions for justice and liberty within their own borders better than extra-national institutions. And the citizens of those nations had the right to direct their own internal affairs as they saw fit, without the imposition of interests from other nations.
FDR viewed World War II as a war against imperialism and for the freedom of independent peoples to rule themselves. It was the ambitions of empires that had brought about the subjugation of Europe and Asia to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. This was a major bone of contention between Roosevelt and Churchill, who viewed the war in very different terms. Tension lingered between the two and came to a head in 1943.
Underlying the declaration’s concept of “dignity”—often invoked but left undefined—was the strong influence of Catholic personalism through draft committee member Jacques Maritain. Maritain had long been an influential figure in Catholic philosophical and theological circles. He had sought to bridge the divide between the Catholic natural law tradition and the more modern and Protestant natural rights tradition. Up until that point, Catholics were wary of democratic liberalism and the individualism of the natural rights tradition, which seemed to stress the individual over the community. Through the Catholic personalist movement, which stresses the centrality of the human personality and dignity, Catholics found a way to make peace with the rights tradition in a way that allowed them to maintain their theological integrity.
The other notable Christian figure on the drafting committee was Orthodox Lebanese philosopher Charles Malik. Malik’s influence was especially important in the declaration’s emphasis upon religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
The story about the rise and eventual domination of human rights as the international language of justice is often credited to the UDHR. Most international human rights law claims to draw its substance from the declaration. This is the story the Mary Ann Glendon tells, and it’s the one that most scholars, intellectuals, and politicians believe. Whether it is true or not is another debate. Recent scholarship by Samuel Moyn and Marco Duranti offer distinctly contrasting narratives as to how human rights triumphed on the European continent and internationally.
Moyn, as I have written in other places, offers a deeply revisionist history that credits Christians in Europe and America with backing and bolstering a Christian version of human rights that was indebted to Catholic personalism with its emphasis on human dignity as the cornerstone of society. On Moyn’s telling, it was the work of popes and Christian intellectuals and politicians that laid the groundwork for the acceptance and legal codification of human rights on the European continent.
Marco Duranti’s recent book The Conservative Human Rights Revolution tells a complementary story about the role conservatives in France and the United Kingdom—Churchill figures prominently—played in the formation of the European Court of Human Rights.
If we leave aside questions about the declaration’s origins and early influence and turn to the present, we have more substantial agreement on the declaration’s contemporary role in international politics. Most would not balk at attributing the UDHR with spreading human rights globally. Though contemporary scholarship has offered a more plural reading of the sources and influences upon the construction of the international human rights regime, UDHR played a pivotal galvanizing role in inaugurating our current era of human rights politics.
The folly and irresponsibility of contemporary mainline Protestant churches stands in contrast to the seriousness and responsibility of FDR’s vision for a post-war world order that actively sought to preserve peace and freedom for independent states. The institutions developed in this period were not perfect, but they helped usher in one of the most prosperous and peaceful periods in world history.
With the triumph of human rights as the international moral lingua franca, there have been great gains and, at a minimum, an awareness of the wrongs governments have perpetrated against their people. But the human rights enunciated in the declaration functioned mostly as ideals to be emulated and not legal dictates from a universal government.
There was a time when many persons, more on the left than the right, hoped that the UN would take on a greater role and authority to enforce international law. Though the yearning for global governance is still alive amongst the cosmopolitan remnant, the reality seems further away as the UN continues to slide toward irrelevance. The dysfunction of the European Union and the rising nationalist sentiment across Europe, the US, and other parts of the globe all but ensures to further frustrate many progressives’ hopes for a global order ruled by universal institutions.
As a statement, the UDHR is admirable and offers a realistic and practical political vision for protecting persons from the worst sorts of abuses. A world that is drawn closer to the declaration’s vision is surely a world that would be better off. That said, today those who have inherited the noble idealism and humanitarian spirit that produced this document, and the UN, have forgotten what made this project politically feasible—the development of independent nations. Many humanitarians have mistaken the modesty and restraint of the older liberal vision as a flaw. In fact, it was its strength.
Looking back at the last 70 years, the declaration’s impact across the globe was beyond what Eleanor Roosevelt and its drafters could have imagined. As we look forward to the next 70 years, the human rights agenda is in great need of reform and renewal. Perhaps a return to the spirit of 1948 and the wisdom of its original drafters can provide wisdom for the future.