Fundamental Freedoms: Eleanor Roosevelt, the Holocaust, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Scholar Allida Black describes how former first lady and human rights activist Eleanor Roosevelt worked to develop the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Transcript (Text)

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On December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted a document called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Drafted by an international committee led by former First Lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt, the Declaration reflected the UN's determination to prevent the "scourge of war" and "reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights" and "in the dignity and worth of the human person."

The Declaration is many things to many people. But what it really is is a vision that Eleanor Roosevelt negotiated with the world on what the world should be in terms of how it treats people who live on it and how people treat one another and how people and governments interact. And it's done in the shadow of war and in the shadow of the Great Depression.

The word horror does not apply to the Holocaust. It's too weak. The world has never seen anything like this. And so the Declaration is really the perfect example of the fundamental choice that people all over the world have to make. Are you going to live in fear? Are you going to wake up every day and say that people are evil? Or are you going to say, we are going to learn how to get past that, and we are going to learn to live for dreams and not for the fears of the past.

On December 21, 1945, President Harry Truman wrote to the former First Lady, asking her to serve as one of the US representatives to the newly formed United Nations. At the UN, Mrs. Roosevelt was asked to lead the Third Committee, which oversaw humanitarian, education, and cultural questions, including the challenge of finding a solution for the fate of European refugees. Of the two million wartime refugees in Europe, 250,000 were survivors of the Holocaust.

Between February 13 and 16, 1946, Mrs. Roosevelt met some of the survivors when she visited a series of camps for displaced persons in Germany. The first camp she visited was Zeilsheim. What she saw there, as well as elsewhere in many of the destroyed towns of Europe, shocked her.

A lot of people really say that when Eleanor went to the displaced persons camp, that that really was the turning point. But I disagree with that. I'd say it was a turning point, but it was the experiences that led her to understand that to really make it so important. She had seen what it was like when generations of Americans grew up without hope. She understood how violence exacerbated racial tensions in the United States and saw racial violence explode during the Depression and spoke out against that so much that people tried to kill her. And when she went, in the Second World War, to the Pacific in 1943, she saw painfully every day what that was.

She understands that human rights just aren't political and civil. It's the right to go to school, the right to eat, the right to have shelter, the right to marry, the right to have an identity. So when she takes all of those experiences together, that's her world vision.

In January of 1947, Mrs. Roosevelt was asked by the UN to lead a new Commission on Human Rights. The Commission began to work on crafting an international bill of rights which hoped to answer one deceptively simple question-- what rights should belong to every human being on Earth?

And so she then is in charge of negotiating this 18-member committee. Now, I just want to ask you to think of one thing. I want you to pick 18 people that you don't get along with. And I want you to put them around a table. And you don't agree on money. You don't agree on God. You don't agree on family. You don't agree on whether government should exist or not. You don't agree on anything except one thing-- by gods, you beat the Germans.

And so her goal is to help all of these 18 countries come to some common vision that will say, this is what the world should be and the horrors of what the world is. So you have this big debate, this big clash.

When Eleanor was negotiating this agreement, she knew that she had to get it done fast. First of all, she says she knows that lawyers will debate for three years where to put a comma. And so she wants to avoid that massive slowdown that would happen if it had to be a "legally binding" document. And she's also afraid that Truman is not going to get re-elected-- she will no longer be at the UN. And so she feels like she has a three-year window.

In December 1947, Mrs. Roosevelt made a shrewd decision. Instead of creating a legally binding document, the committee would first focus on creating a declaration of universally shared rights.

And during this whole struggle, Eleanor comes to believe that food and shelter are the fundamental human right. Because if you go to bed starving, then you can't dream. And if you can't dream, democracy dies. And so for Eleanor, the Declaration was a call to action.

She knew that it initially wasn't going to be legally binding. But she understood if we did it right, if the world did it right, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be as important as our Bill of Rights, important as our Constitution, important as the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, as important as the Magna Carta. And so the Declaration is saying, we are not ever going to let this happen again. But rather than saying never again and just focusing on the negative, they're saying, this is what we must be.

Eleanor had a very simple view of this. We had to fight fear. Because fear was at the root of it all. Fear of difference, fear of different religions, fear of different ethnicities. Governments being afraid of losing their status, their income, their property, their territory. So the way to combat fear is to give people something to work toward, rather than run away from.

And so the Declaration was focused on, what do we all share? How do people fit in this? And what is the world's responsibility to help make sure that individual governments don't violate this? If Eleanor was sitting in this chair right now, she would say, we are all on trial to show what democracy means. That we must hazard all we have in its pursuit.

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