1945 - 1953

Eleanor Roosevelt and the United Nations

U.S. National Archives

“I believed the United Nations to be the one hope for a peaceful world. I knew that my husband had placed great importance on the establishment of this world organization. So I felt a great sense of responsibility.”

After Franklin Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt famously told reporters that the story was over. 

But the new American president Harry Truman had different ideas. In December 1945, Truman sent her a message asking her to be a member of the United States delegation to the first United Nations General Assembly to be held in London in January 1946. At first, she demurred, fearing she was too inexperienced in international meetings. But as she thought more about it, she became determined to join the delegation. She accepted the President’s offer, and became the first woman to represent the United States as a delegate to the United Nations.

The men who made up the rest of the American delegation weren’t quite sure what to do with Roosevelt. They assigned her to Committee 3 concerned with humanitarian, economic, and cultural questions rather than to one of the other committees dealing with what they considered to be more important political, financial, and legal matters. Eleanor Roosevelt believed that she was assigned to Committee 3 because the men in the delegation assumed she would sit by and do the least harm there.

But those men underestimated Eleanor Roosevelt. On Committee 3, she did what she always did — she made herself useful. She used considerable diplomatic and rhetorical skills to win the right of self-determination for war refugees who faced the danger of forced repatriation to their home countries.  And her reputation for hard work and skillful debate earned her appointment as the United States representative on the newly created UN Human Rights Commission. She would later say that it was her work on the Human Rights Commission that she considered to be “her most important task.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, as chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, opens the session at Geneva, Switzerland.

The other members of the Human Rights Commission elected Roosevelt chairperson, and she worked hard to push the committee’s work along as quickly as possible. The committee decided to focus on drafting an international bill of rights, which the General Assembly could adopt in the form of a declaration.

Eleanor Roosevelt worked her committee hard, presiding over divisive debates on the nature and extent of human rights and often clashing with the Soviet representative. At the heart of the Commission’s debate was the definition of exactly what kind of human rights and liberties should be guaranteed to the citizens of the world in the second half of the twentieth century.

Roosevelt wanted the declaration to include basic principles of individual liberty on the order of the United States Bill of Rights, but she believed the new declaration must be written in such a way so as to be sensitive and acceptable to all religions, cultures, and ideologies. She also insisted that the language of the declaration be brief and simple so that all people could understand it.

Draft Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The result was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that sets the standard required of all nations for the treatment of their citizens. It is the yardstick by which our modern concept of human rights and human dignity are measured, and the language applies to men, women, and children alike.

The Declaration is an expansion on the principles of the Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter. It declares the right to opinion and expression; the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; and the rights to life, liberty, and security.

But perhaps the most startling and progressive aspect of the Declaration is the number of economic rights it proclaims—the very foundation of our concept of human security: the right to work and free choice of employment; the right to equal pay for equal work; the right to a decent standard of living sufficient to provide adequate food, clothing, housing, and medical care for you and your family; the right to social security when you’re unemployed, disabled, or in old-age; the right to an education; and the right to participate in and enjoy the cultural arts and sciences.

A color print of the painting by Frank Beresford of Eleanor Roosevelt addressing the United Nations in London, England, on February 12, 1946.

In a speech before the General Assembly just before that body was scheduled to debate and vote on the adoption of the Declaration, Eleanor Roosevelt asserted that:

“We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind…This Declaration may well become the international Magna Carta” that will raise human beings around the world “to a higher standard of life and to greater enjoyment of freedom.”

Eleanor Roosevelt speaking before United Nations in "Central Hall, Westminster" London, England.

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Forty-eight nations voted yes. There were no votes against, and only eight nations abstained. And at the conclusion of the vote, all the assembled delegates rose to their feet to give Eleanor Roosevelt a standing ovation.

Eleanor Roosevelt - Human Rights Day Address
Eleanor Roosevelt Looking at a Model of the Permanent Headquarters of the United Nations

In March 1953, Eleanor Roosevelt returned to the United Nations and delivered some extemporaneous remarks in answer to what has become known as The Great Question: 

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin?” she asked. “In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they ARE the world of the individual person: The neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger word.”

Credits: Story

Exhibit created by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum — http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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