A worthy review of the history and impact of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “the polestar of an army of international human rights activists.”
Glendon (Law/Harvard Univ.; A Nation Under Lawyers, 1994) guides the reader through the drafts and redrafts of a document that has been compared to the Declaration of Independence and the French 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man. As a member of the UN Commission on Human Rights and chair of the draft committee, Eleanor Roosevelt used her prestige and popularity to shepherd a document that affirmed the “brotherhood” of human beings in society and spelled out their rights to life, liberty, and “security of person,” as well as more controversial civil, political, social, and economic rights. Her committee included Arabs and Jews, Chinese, Russians, and Brits, each with different definitions not only of “rights” but of the relationship and responsibilities of the state to the individual and vice versa. While Roosevelt was the best-known committee member, she wrote very little of the actual Declaration and, regrettably, came to be a mouthpiece for the US State Department on some issues. Nevertheless, she directed a hardworking group, with meetings running late into the night and discussions continuing at her teas and dinner parties. Glendon gives equal credit to committee members whose faith, determination, and skills at negotiating compromise built bridges between Moslem and Christian, for instance, over issues concerning women and marriage. The United Nations General Assembly accepted the Declaration without providing enforcement mechanisms, but this did not bother Roosevelt. She believed strongly that despite its lack of legal muscle, it would serve as a “moral beacon” for all nations, and in concluding chapters Glendon argues that this is precisely the case.
As much about the process and the players as the issues, but worthwhile, sometimes inspiring, reading for students of the shifting politics of human rights. (b&w photos, illustrations)