Roosevelt, Malik, & Cassin's Reflections on Human Rights

A few months before the General Assembly voted on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor published the essay from which the excerpts below were drawn. She discussed the process of drafting the Declaration and then addressed in detail the sections of the document that she deemed most important. (Eleanor occasionally refers to “the convention,” a legally binding agreement that was supposed to be written following the Declaration. It took many more years to write such a human rights convention.)

Eleanor Roosevelt’s “The Promise of Human Rights”

The real importance of the Human Rights Commission which was created by the Economic and Social Council lies in the fact that throughout the world there are many people who do not enjoy the basic rights which have come to be accepted in many other parts of the world as inherent rights of all individuals, without which no one can live in dignity and freedom. . . .

If the Declaration is accepted by the Assembly, it will mean that all the nations accepting it hope that the day will come when these rights are considered inherent rights belonging to every human being, but it will not mean that they have to change their laws immediately to make these rights possible. . . .

As I look back at the work thus far of our Human Rights Commission, I realize that its importance is twofold.

In the first place, we have put into words some inherent rights. Beyond that, we have found that the conditions of our contemporary world require the enumeration of certain protections which the individual must have if he is to acquire a sense of security and dignity in his own person. The effect of this is frankly educational. Indeed, I like to think that the Declaration will help forward very largely the education of the peoples of the world.

It seems to me most important that the Declaration be accepted by all member nations, not because they will immediately live up to all of its provisions, but because they ought to support the standards toward which the nations must henceforward aim. Since the objectives have been clearly stated, men of good will everywhere will strive to attain them with more energy and, I trust, with better hope of success.

As the Convention is adhered to by one country after another, it will actually bring into being rights which are tangible and can be invoked before the law of the ratifying countries. Everywhere many people will feel more secure. And as the Great Powers tie themselves down by their ratifications, the smaller nations which fear that the great may abuse their strength will acquire a sense of greater assurance.

The work of the Commission has been of outstanding value in setting before men’s eyes the ideals which they must strive to reach. Men cannot live by bread alone.1

Charles Malik’s “Talk on Human Rights”

Charles Malik served as rapporteur (secretary or organizer) of the Human Rights Drafting Committee (he also served as the president of the Economic and Social Council and as chairman of the Third Committee of the United Nations). When Eleanor retired as chairperson of the Human Rights Commission in 1951, Malik was chosen as her successor.

The excerpts below are taken from a speech Malik gave before a subcommittee of the United States Chamber of Commerce in New York on November 4, 1949. Serving as the Lebanese ambassador to the United States and to the United Nations, Malik encouraged American representatives to lead the way toward global human rights protections. In this talk, he argued that the debates about human rights offered the United Nations a unique opportunity to discuss two interrelated dilemmas: what a human being is, and what expectations all human beings have for their lives. “Here,” he said, “you have the exciting drama of man seeking to grasp himself.” That this debate proved divisive did not surprise Malik: “For man,” he argued, “isn’t only an ape: he does not only mimic the good example of others. Man is also a rational being who is moved and fired by ideas.”2

The work on human rights is the one point in the total activity of the United Nations where the ultimate ideological issues are sharpest. . . . Today men fight precisely because they disagree on their own interpretation of themselves. Man, you and I in person, our origin, our nature, our rights, our destiny: these are the great questions of the age. And these questions are nowhere more dramatically discussed than in the United Nations debate on human rights. For here responsible representatives of all the effective cultures of the world vigorously contend every comma and every shade of meaning. Nothing is more repaying to the thoughtful student of the present ideological situation than to read and ponder, in all their prolonged, dramatic richness, the records of our debates on this question. Here you have the exciting drama of man seeking to grasp himself. . . . Now that we have completed and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely the determination of what belongs to the nature of man, the Commission on Human Rights has turned its attention to the elaboration of actual conventions, or international treaties, which will be signed by States and therefore be binding on them. This is obviously a much more difficult step, because it involves definite international obligations  in this field. For many people agree with you in theory, but when it comes to actually putting that theory 
into practice in their own country, they speedily lose heart. And so it seems we are still at the barest beginning of a long and difficult historical process. The challenge of human rights is still very great. 
What is supremely needed is vigorous moral leadership convinced and therefore convincing....3

René Cassin’s “The Fight for Human Rights”

As the Cold War spread anxiety and uncertainty around the world, Cassin was called upon to reassess the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Twenty years after the General Assembly had endorsed that ambitious document, Cassin spoke to a group of Jewish leaders, dwelling on connections between the history of the Jews, France, and the struggle for human rights. In Cassin’s view, it was the Jews, the group most subjected to the human rights crimes of the recent past, who had to play a leadership role in securing rights for everyone. He presented a case for a strong international approach to human rights: too often, the greatest obstacle to the enforcement of human rights was the insistence of nations on preserving absolute power over what happened in their territory. Cassin also connected the issue of human rights to the creation of the state of Israel. For him, as for Eleanor, Israel was a human rights issue—a response to the persecution of Jews in Europe.

It was the fundamental aim of Hitlerism to stamp out the Jews, but their destruction was also part of an attack on all that the French Revolution stood for: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Human Rights. Hitler’s racialism was essentially an attempt to destroy the principles of the French Revolution. . . .

I would like to consider defense of Human Rights from a legal point of view. This is not by any means the most important aspect; educational and technical aid come first, as we have seen. But the legal side is enormously important, though it cannot show results overnight. . . . For example, one of the great stumbling blocks in the way of Human Rights is the question of national sovereignty. I was at the League of Nations in 1933 for the Bernheim case. Bernheim, a Jew, had been the victim of a violation of the Treaty of Upper Silesia. How did Germany, how did Hitler and Goebbels justify this? Germany’s defense was “Every man is master in his own house. You have no business to inquire what we do with  our socialists, our pacifists or our Jews. You have no right to pry into our affairs. This is a sovereign State.”

That was the situation which led to the Second World War. The same is true today: the Great Powers are still saying “Every man is master in his own house. You have no right to know what I am doing with my own citizens.” You can see how difficult it is to uproot a principle which derives undeniably from practical reality, since the independence of States is in itself a desirable thing, something people will fight for. The right of nations to govern themselves is accepted as the natural order of things. Why should we fear that any country protects its interests too vigorously? Our anxiety is justified in that there comes a moment when the State says: for the purpose of my development, I propose to set my own rules, as I think fit, and if I destroy men in the process, that is no concern of yours.

But it is very much our concern. World progress cannot be built on the ashes of human suffering. That is the aim of Human Rights. We must acknowledge at this point that resistance to an international system of controls is very strong....4

  1. Citations

    • 1 Roosevelt, “Promise of Human Rights,” in Courage in a Dangerous World, ed. Black, 553–58.
    • 2 Charles Malik, “Talk on Human Rights,” available at (accessed June 3, 2009).
    • 3 Malik, “Talk on Human Rights.”
    • 4 Cassin, “The Fight for Human Rights.”

Connection Questions

  1. What do Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Malik, and René Cassin see as the main challenges of implementing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
  2. What is sovereignty? What is the importance of national sovereignty? How does the issue of sovereignty come up in these three reflections?
  3. Do human rights complement national laws? Do they undermine them?
  4. In their comments, how did the document’s drafters anticipate discussions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and human rights in general, that take place today?

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