|Although she had already won international respect and admiration in her role as First Lady to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt’s work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would become her greatest legacy. She was without doubt, the most influential member of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights. |
Unlike most other members of the Commission, Mrs. Roosevelt was neither a scholar nor an expert on international law. Her enthusiasm for her work at the United Nations was rooted in her humanitarian convictions and her steady faith in human dignity and worth. Although she often joked that she was out of place among so many academics and jurists, her intellect and compassion were great assets, and proved to be of crucial importance in the composition of a direct and straightforward Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
With characteristic modesty, Eleanor Roosevelt considered her position on the Commission to be one of ambassador for the common man and woman: "I used to tell my husband that, if he could make me understand something, it would be clear to all other people in the country, and perhaps that will be my real value on this drafting commission!"
The delegates to the Commission on Human Rights elected Eleanor Roosevelt their Chairperson. Like so many individuals throughout the world, the delegates recognized Eleanor Roosevelt’s unparalleled humanitarian convictions. During her tenure in the White House she had assisted her physically disabled husband in political matters, serving as his "eyes and ears," traveling throughout the U.S. to gauge the mood of the people. Through this work, she became widely esteemed as a person who both understood and felt the plight of the common man and woman.
Even prior to her years in the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt was actively engaged in politics and advocacy on the local and national level. She was an astute, accomplished, and intelligent woman, thoroughly familiar with the world of political negotiation. Just as she had served as a liaison of sorts between the President and his constituency, so she acted as a liaison between the Commission and the hopes of humanity. She may have lacked certain factual knowledge, but she had a keen sense of what the average person expected out of life - what men, women and children needed to flourish as individuals.
Her common sense approach, constant optimism and boundless energy were integral to the smooth facilitation of meetings. On any given issue, her colloquial style and good humor were engaged not only to win over the majority of delegates who generally supported a particular U.S. position, but to confound those who opposed it. A New York Times reporter who was present at the Commission meetings wrote of the power Mrs. Roosevelt’s personality had over certain unreasonable diplomats:
If Mrs. Roosevelt made one sort of impression with her familiar style, she made another with her commitment to produce a universally accepted, "living" declaration. She was recognized as a tireless worker, stating triumphantly at one point, "I drive hard and when I get home I will be tired! The men on the Commission will be also!" Many of the delegates found this aspect of her personality less agreeable than her charm. One went so far as to suggest that his own human rights were violated by the length of the meetings!
Envisioning a declaration with enduring principles that would be perpetually recognized by all nations, she was a strong advocate of true universality within the Declaration. She was adamant that different conceptions of human rights be deliberated during the UDHR’s composition:
Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal sense of accomplishment with the finished Declaration was unparalleled in her life. Her speech before the General Assembly as she submitted the Declaration for review demonstrates the historical significance she placed upon its adoption:
Eleanor Roosevelt’s concern for humanity made her the driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Her leadership of the Commission on Human Rights led to the composition of a Declaration that has endured as a universally accepted standard of achievement for all nations. As our respect for and understanding of the Universal Declaration has grown, so too has our gratitude and admiration for this modest woman who passionately pursued what she imagined would become a cornerstone in the struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms for everyone - everywhere.
She lived her life in the center of what many would regard the Twentieth Century’s most consequential events, the Great Depression, World War II, the establishment of the United Nations and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She confronted both opportunity and adversity with a sense of optimism and determination. A former Democratic presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, once said of Eleanor Roosevelt, "She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness."
Eleanor Roosevelt on Human Rights:
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (December 10, 1948) United Nations.
Human Rights and Human Freedom: An American View (1946) Eleanor Roosevelt
The Promise of Human Rights (April 1948) Eleanor Roosevelt.
Making Human Rights Come Alive (1949) Eleanor Roosevelt.
Statement on Draft Covenant on Human Rights (1951) Eleanor Roosevelt.
On the Draft Convention on Political Rights of Women (1953) Eleanor Roosevelt.
In Your Hands (March 27, 1958) Eleanor Roosevelt.
Adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights (December 9, 1948) Eleanor Roosevelt