Eleanor Roosevelt on the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights

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This is a historical and political speech delivered by Eleanor Roosevelt on December 9, 1948, in the Palais De Chaillot, Paris, France. It took place one day before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed after two long years and multiple work sessions chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. This speech was addressed, not only to the delegations of the 58 countries part of the United Nations present in the General Assembly, but to the whole world, claiming that this document was just a document that needed to be improved in the future, being however a great beginning, trying this way to convince them to vote in favour.

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Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York on October 11, 1884, and died in the same city on November 7, 1962. She was born into a well-known family in the USA. Her uncle was President Theodore Roosevelt. Sadly, her parents died when she was a child taking her grandmother responsibility for her care. She was sent to a school for girls in England, where she stood out as a student. Once she came back, she married Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1905, her fifth cousin.

She was an active member of the League of Women Voters, the Women’s Trade Union League, and the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee. She helped to establish Val-Kill Industries, a non-profit furniture factory in Hyde Park, New York, and was a teacher at the Todhunter School, a private girls’ school in New York City. With the entry of America in the First World War, Eleanor began to work actively with the American Red Cross.

In 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt became the First Lady, but in a totally different way to the previous ones. She was the first to give a lecture and became an active advocate for minorities, the poor and the unprotected. This way she was known to be ‘the President’s eyes, ears and legs’ since she was objectively reporting on how they developed the different projects of this nature carried out in their country.

Later, she also became politically active when her husband contracted polio as a way to support him, and at the same time develop his own potential. After the death of her husband, she continued with her public life. President Truman was surprised by all the humanitarian work that she carried out tirelessly and extraordinarily. For that reason, he called her ‘The First Lady of the World’. He recruited her to be part of the General Assembly of the United Nations, where, as the presidential chair of the Human Rights Commission, she wrote the draft of the Declaration of the Human Rights that would be signed on December 10, 1948. In 1953 she resigned her office with the arrival of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and was later relocated to her post by President Kennedy in 1961. She was a prolific writer and a highly demanded public figure as a lecturer.

On October 24, 1945, after the Second World War, the organization of the United Nations was created with several objectives, among them the one of maintaining peace and promoting human rights. The participating countries were the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States and China. Eleanor Roosevelt was the delegate in charge of the General Assembly that would carry out the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights made for this purpose on December 10, 1948. The document proclaims basic civil, political and economic rights common to all human beings. The Soviet Union did not support the Declaration for not agreeing with some amendments to the document; what seemed to happen is that the United States and the Soviet Union did not share the same concepts of freedom and democracy as Eleanor mentions in her speech when she says: ‘The Soviet amendment to article 20 is obviously a very restrictive statement of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.’ And when she says:’ It introduces the terms ‘democratic view,’ ‘democratic systems,’ ‘democratic state,’ and ‘fascism,’ which we know all too well.’

For that reason, she explains, they are forced not to accept the amendments proposed by the Soviet Union. Throughout her speech, Eleanor shows that this is a document that has been exhaustively debated for 2 years and that 58 nations have agreed on its content, being aware that ‘Not every man nor every government can have what he wants in a document of this kind”, but being, however, “a great document” to which’ we propose to give it our full support”, emphasizing further that the character of the document is that of’ a Declaration of basic principles of human rights and freedoms ‘, but with the desire that ‘may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere ‘.

Eleanor continues her speech making it clear that ‘Man’s desire for peace lies behind this Declaration.’

In the last part of his speech, in a last attempt to convince the Soviet Union, he mentions the causes that led them there and the reasons for defending human rights when she says:

‘The realization that the flagrant violation of human rights by Nazi and Fascist countries sowed the seeds of the last world war has provided the impetus for the work which brings us to the moment of achievement here today’. She also emphasizes that a fourth session would not make sense to talk about something that had already been discussed at length, mentioning the words that Secretary Marshall had used in this regard at the beginning of the Assembly.

Finally, Eleanor Roosevelt achieved her goal and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved with 48 votes in favour, no votes against and 8 abstentions (USSR, Belarus, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, South Africa and Saudi Arabia). Eleanor Roosevelt will always be remembered as the driving force that in 1948 created the declaration of liberties that will always be her legacy: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She has been, without a doubt, the backbone of a document that laid the foundations of what the struggle for freedom represents. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the first general international legal instrument of human rights proclaimed by an International Organization of universal character. It is a document that enshrines the most relevant human rights, which means that, as Eleanor said, it is a great start. Now, the great challenge is to make those rights respected by those in charge of each country. However, we are daily witnesses in the news that many minorities do not see these basic rights respected due to hidden economic or political interests. From this point of view, much remains to be done to fully implement this document and thus, in the future, expand the rights that are collected in this document and that cease to be basic rights. Despite the continued violation of these rights, there is no doubt that without the existence of this document there would be no legal basis on which to sanction the offending countries

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