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Putting People First

Why Liberty Is Inseparable From the Call to Social Responsibility

A WORLD MADE NEW Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights By Mary Ann Glendon; Random House: 334 pp., $25.95

June 03, 2001|BLANCHE WIESEN COOK | Blanche Wiesen Cook is distinguished professor of history at John Jay College and the author of "Eleanor Roosevelt."

The Cold War has been over for 10 years, but there is no peace and there has been no victory. As we plan to militarize the heavens, it is almost an act of restorative justice to recall that the United Nations, founded by 50 nations in San Francisco on June 25, 1945, after three months of deliberation, promised peace not merely as the absence of violent conflict but in terms of human rights. At that time, with at least 40 million dead from World War II and a planet of refugees plunged in gloom and despair, there was widespread agreement that peace was impossible unless individuals were guaranteed an end to genocide, torture, aggressive war, slavery, homelessness, poverty and personal indignity by governments in power.

When President Harry Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to the United Nations' first General Assembly delegation, which met in London in October 1945, she called for suggestions and guidance from her friends and colleagues in the women's movement, the peace movement, the union movement, the NAACP and other groups committed to racial justice. With their advice, she left feeling well prepared to fight for the achievement of her husband's great legacy, as expressed in his January 1941 promise of "four essential human freedoms": freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and from fear, believing that these freedoms, widely understood to be America's war aims, would be essential to the future peace of the world.

Eleanor Roosevelt had always argued that the people of the world could expect little from governments in power, or the politicians that ran them, unless they organized--door to door, block by block, community by community. She was proud to be part of many movements that fought for economic security and greater democratization and an end to bigotry, racism and injustice.

So it is no surprise that Roosevelt considered the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, voted into being by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948, a Magna Carta for the world, which would serve as "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations." Born out of the waste and carnage of World War II, that declaration remains the most far-reaching of all U.N. declarations and is the subject of Mary Ann Glendon's book, "A World Made New."

Vividly written and even-handed, "A World Made New" is an important, potentially galvanizing book, and in this frightful, ferocious time, marked by war and agony, it is urgent reading. Glendon's title derives from Eleanor Roosevelt's nightly prayer: "Save us from ourselves and show us a vision of a world made new." Sidelined almost immediately by the Cold War, all 30 articles of the declaration are now more than ever on the world's agenda and are still the most hopeful challenge for the future.

The Universal Declaration was a triumph of diplomacy, negotiation and good will. As chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission, Roosevelt demonstrated diplomacy and steadfast vigor that were central to the creation of the Declaration and fought for the unity of "human" rights with economic and social rights, against much opposition from her State Department colleagues, who condemned them as communistic and un-American. Roosevelt dismissed that view and offered to resign, though Truman rejected her offer. "'You cannot talk human rights," she wrote, "to people who are hungry."

But Eleanor Roosevelt is not the centerpiece of this compelling story. Indeed, her protracted conflicts and negotiations with the State Department and political opposition in the United States to the declaration and the two enabling covenants are hardly discussed, although declassified State Department documents relating to them have been available for several years. "A World Made New" is rather about the intellectual origins of the declaration. In 1948, the architects of the declaration were "aware that they were engaged in a race against time." The Cold War would soon freeze over their hopes; "the Palestine question divided world opinion"; war had already "broke[n] out in Greece, Korea, and China." For two years, however, the framers of the declaration met with one another and argued. Roosevelt considered the U.N. "a bridge upon which" she and her fellow delegates could "meet and talk." And on that bridge, as dramatized in this book, Lebanon's Charles Malik, existentialist philosopher, master diplomat and a chief spokesman for the Arab League, and French diplomat Rene Cassin, "an ardent supporter of the Jewish homeland, who lost twenty-nine relatives in concentration camps," fought together for a future of dignity and respect for all humanity.

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