International Human Rights Day: The Lessons of Eleanor Roosevelt

2016 has been a trying year for human rights.  In Syria we have continued to bear witness to the largest humanitarian and human rights disaster since World War II. We have seen troubling reactions from western nations in attempting to deal with the subsequent refugee crisis. It has been another year plagued with terrorist violence, with large-scale attacks occurring in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, Belgium, France, and the United States. This year has also been particularly troubling for human rights defenders in light of the global surge of elections that have brought leaders to power who, as Kenneth Roth describes it, see democracy as a “dictatorship of the majority”.  These leaders advocate different policies that may violate human rights and democratic norms because there is popular support, thus institutionalizing human rights abuses.  Today, on International Human Rights Day, these challenges lead to the question “how can we combat these trends and support human rights?” to answer this question some of the best resolutions come from the founding of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the woman who spearheaded its creation, Eleanor Roosevelt.

The history of the creation of human rights is usually framed in a way that makes it seem like they were an inevitable product of the Second World War. It is stated that after the international community began to comprehend the atrocities committed in the conflict, there was an overwhelming impetus to create international policy to protect against this happening again. While there is truth to this narrative the emergence of human rights was far from inevitable. In fact it was never intended to be a part of the United Nations at all. In April of 1945 during the initial conference intended for the creation of the UN, the subject was never discussed as a goal for the organization. It was the lobbying of Filipino General Carlos Romulo to add a statement for human rights into the United Nations Charter that led to its inclusion in the body’s mandate. Once the United Nations Human Rights Commission began the fight for their creation did not become any easier. National governments were relatively unconcerned with the progress of the Commission, and the sessions could become delayed by personality, national rivalries fueled by the Cold War, and most consequentially, ideological differences. These ideological differences led to multiple divisions within the commission. In the framing of the Declaration Western societies emphasized the individual as the subject of the rights and Communist states emphasized the collective interest. There were further divisions between developed and developing nations. The former were heavily advocating for the inclusion of broad civil and political rights, whereas the later supported social and economic rights that could encourage development.  What is evident from all these facts is that creating a universal document that could be accepted by an international body facing this type of adversity was not an easy task, and the techniques used by Roosevelt have applications to today’s struggle for human rights.

As chairwoman of the drafting committee, the way she faced these challenges with determination and focus should be a model of how we advocate for human rights today. Despite the fact that the human rights agenda was not valued by many countries’ foreign policy leaders, In Roosevelt’s case it was opposition from both Secretary of State George Marshall and Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett, she continued to push harder for their acceptance instead of giving up. When elected Chairwoman she promised that she would be “harsh driver”, and she lived up to this promise, having fourteen to sixteen hour days drafting the declaration and continuing to push the commission forward. This determination in spite of the fact that there were so many obstacles to the success of the creation and implementation of the declaration should be a lesson to advocates today. Despite the very real barriers we are facing with human rights implementation progress is possible when these obstructions are met with sustained determination.

Another trait Roosevelt displayed in the committee that can be transferred to today’s human rights struggle is focus. Despite the fact that she was embroiled in negotiations in the middle of the Cold War, she did not allow political attacks to derail the commission. The delegate of the U.S.S.R. would regularly attend meetings with news of racial injustice in the United States, or speak on the record of Imperialism of the United Kingdom. Her response would be to acknowledge the statements of the U.S.S.R. Delegate, but not fight him on the points to avoid delaying the production of the Declaration. The focus Roosevelt displayed in the committee is more applicable today, in the face of these recent elections. Because the pursuit of human rights are less of an accepted norm today, and are being challenged by those in power, they are more at risk of being swept up in partisan squabbles. This example shows the importance of understanding that these ideas transcend the banality of these political clashes, and by not allowing them to descend into this arena there will be more hope for their progression.

Another lesson we can learn about the advocacy of human rights from Eleanor Roosevelt is the importance of education. In 1948 after the passing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Roosevelt became an advocate for teaching human rights around the globe using the resources of UNESCO. She believed this was necessary because of the nature of the document. She was keenly aware of the fact that as a declaration it was not enforceable.  This was not a treaty or international agreement that would be legally binding on states, but was a document of “moral force”. She believed in the weight of the ideas within the Declaration, but her realism told her that these ideas only carried weight if people knew their human rights, understood them, and demanded them.

Fortunately for human rights advocates in 2016 human rights are not ideas solely supported by moral force. The rights of the covenant have become legally binding with the other arms of the International Bill of Human Rights: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Beyond this the concepts presented in the Declaration have gone on to inspire over 20 legally binding international treaties.  Despite the fact that there is now this legal structure supporting the values of human rights, advocates should still follow Roosevelt’s example of widespread education. While human rights have a legal component, to truly create environments in which human rights will flourish their social component has to be recognized and nurtured. To do this mass education needs to be accomplished so people understand, respect and protect these rights. Roosevelt advocates that by doing this we are laying the foundation to a more peaceful society. The legal treaties we now have in place should be understood only as a safeguard, not a substitute for education.

2016 has been a difficult year for human rights. We have been plagued by longstanding crises, and new challenges have emerged. In the face of this adversity it is easy to question the validity of human rights, and to wonder if their pursuit is futile.  In these times it is important to remember the words of Roosevelt, “Much of our difficulty today lies in our fears . . . how you get away from fear, I don’t know yet. I am hoping that if we can stay together, and work together, each year that we live we perhaps will build a little more confidence and destroy a little of the fear. All of you who are going to teach the next generation the generation that is going to live with this when we are dead can perhaps teach them the willingness to be patient, to experiment, to believe in human beings even when it seems so contrary and so difficult”.

Kevin Orsini is an intern in the Centre for Gender Rights at LCILP Global. He holds an MSc in Human Rights from the London School of Economics, and a BA from Canisius College in International Relations and History. His research interests include terrorism, gender-based violence in conflict, and the UN women, peace and security agenda.

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