A Tea Party with a Theme: How Universal is Universal?

The end of the Human Rights Commission’s first session marked the beginning of work to draft an International Bill of Rights (February 1947). “Thinking that our work might be helped by an informal atmosphere,” Eleanor recalled in her autobiography, “I asked a small group to meet in my apartment for tea.” Chinese representative P. C. Chang, John Humphrey, a Canadian who also served as the permanent head of the United Nations Division of Human Rights, and Charles Malik of Lebanon comprised the group.

That night, in Eleanor’s apartment, the discussion between the learned members became more abstract and philosophical, and Eleanor, amused, sat back and enjoyed the exchange. Humphrey later wrote that

Chang and Malik were too far apart in their philosophical approaches to be able to work together on a text. There was a great deal of talk, but we were getting nowhere. Then, after still another cup of tea, Chang suggested that I put my other duties aside for six months and study Chinese philosophy . . . [which] was his way of saying that Western influence might be too great, and he was looking at Malik as he spoke. There was some more discussion mainly of a philosophical character, Mrs. Roosevelt saying little and continuing to pour tea.1

Rather than start a Confucian study group, it was decided that Humphrey would write a draft for the commission to discuss. Fluent in both Anglo-Saxon and French legal traditions, and well versed in civil and common law, Humphrey and his staff were prepared to tackle this task. But they still had much to learn, and they embarked on a study of “all the world’s existing constitutions and rights instruments, as well as suggestions that had poured in to the Secretariat from members of the Commission, outside organizations, and even from various interested individuals.”2

Their work mirrored a concurrent study being conducted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In June 1947, UNESCO set up a Committee on the Theoretical Bases of Human Rights to study the world’s cultures, sending questionnaires to experts around the globe. Replies from scholars, philosophers, and political activists indicated that some rights were protected by all cultures. For example, a Confucian philosopher named Lo Zhongshu wrote:

[t]he problem of human rights was seldom discussed by Chinese thinkers of the past, at least in the same way as it was in the West. There was no open declaration of rights in China, either by individual thinkers or by political constitutions, until this conception was introduced from the West. . . . [However], the idea of human rights developed very early in China. . . . A great Confucianist, Mencius (372–289 BC), strongly maintained that a government should work for the will of the people. He said: “The people are of primary importance. The [ruler] of least importance.” 3

Similarly, the Bengali Muslim poet Humayun Kabir argued that early Islam had “succeeded in overcoming distinction of race and color to an extent experienced neither before nor after.” (According to Kabir, Western ideas about human rights had suffered from a gap between grand notions and lessthan-grand practices.)4

While few challenged the UNESCO study’s basic conclusion that the idea of human rights was universal, criticisms quickly arose. What was the basis for human rights? When and how did the concept of human rights originate? Some critics of the document began to suggest that any search for universal traits would obscure the diversity of cultures around the world.

It turned out that many anthropologists, and particularly the American Anthropological Association, feared that any discussion of human values would tend to be dominated by Western ideas, to the detriment of smaller and more vulnerable cultures. In their 1947 Statement on Human Rights, the association offered the following thought:

Because of the great number of societies that are in intimate contact in the modern world, and because of the diversity of their ways of life, the primary task confronting those who would draw up a Declaration on the Rights of Man is thus, in essence, to resolve the following problem: how can the proposed Declaration be applicable to all human beings, and not be a statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in the countries of Western Europe and America? 5

For good reason, the American Anthropological Association suspected that the Declaration would be used by Western nations to justify colonialism. For centuries, the Europeans and Americans dominated Latin American, Asian, and African nations, imposing colonial and semi-colonial arrangements that injured local cultures. The association’s report stated:

Definitions of freedom, concepts of the nature of human rights, and the like, have . . . been narrowly drawn. Alternatives have been decried, and suppressed where controls have been established over non-European peoples. . . . The consequences of this point of view have been disastrous for mankind. Doctrines of the “white man’s burden”6 have been employed to implement economic exploitation, and to deny the right to control their own affairs to millions of peoples over the world, where the expansion of Europe and America has not meant the literal extermination of whole populations.7

The alleged inferiority of non-Western groups permitted colonialists to present themselves as benevolent guardians, a convenient fiction backed up by a dubious science known as eugenics. This hugely influential set of ideas about racial hierarchies was studied by schoolchildren from San Francisco to Prague, and many of the leading scientists of the day endorsed it.8 Rather than embracing the unity of mankind, eugenics presented a picture of irreconcilable differences. Based on poor science and prejudices, those who believed the principles of eugenics imagined that some races were superior to others, at times resulting in violence against those deemed inferior. This outlook contributed to a worldview that divided humanity along lines of class, race, and ethnicity.

The anthropologists’ statement explained that while all cultures confront similar challenges, ”no two of them, however, do so in exactly the same way, and some of them employ means that differ, often strikingly, from one another.”9 Such striking differences should not be the basis for enmity or intolerance, but rather for an appreciation of the need to value all cultures equally.10

If the American Anthropological Association was correct, and human values depended on very specific cultural characteristics, could there ever be a universal human right? The association’s response was that

[o]nly when a statement of the right of men to live in terms of their own traditions is incorporated into the proposed Declaration…can the next step of defining the rights and duties of human groups as regards each other be set upon the firm foundation of the presentday scientific knowledge of Man.11

This concept that all ideas are of equal value, or cultural relativism, had won over many progressive thinkers in the 1920s and 1930s. Such an idea challenged the mission of Eleanor and her colleagues, since “standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive.” If the “beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any Declaration of Human Rights to mankind as a whole,” then the commission might encounter a basic contradiction between respect for individual cultures and the search for overarching universal traits.12

However powerful these arguments were, World War II and the Holocaust had shown the danger of accepting one group’s claim to superiority over others. Many held that in the aftermath of such events, the need to protect what individuals did share trumped the safeguarding of differences between cultures. Critics of the American Anthropological Association argued that at a time when the future of human civilization itself was threatened, the organization’s position (known commonly as relativism) was untenable. In other words, cultural differences could be tolerated but not necessarily glorified, especially when they denied individuals’ basic rights or threatened the life of groups and individuals.

In December 1948, a lively debate about this issue began as the Third Committee reviewed the Human Rights Commission’s preliminary draft. The Chilean delegate, who had ceaselessly championed the rights of the poor, took on the role of mediator. Hernan Santa Cruz, a progressive judge, had previously presented Humphrey with his government’s version of a human rights bill, but he was now working hard to bridge his colleagues’ views.

The delegate from Uruguay held up the discussion, leveling objection after objection. Eleanor appealed to Santa Cruz, hoping he might convey to the Uruguayan delegate the importance of the Declaration. Santa Cruz “looked at me,” she recalled, and he said,

“I have been on the Human Rights Committee for quite some time and have become accustomed to this document, and you must let him become accustomed to it because it is an Anglo-Saxon document.”

“But,” I protested, “It is the result of eighteen nations and they were not all Anglo-Saxon nations.”

He insisted, “It is still an Anglo-Saxon document. In time, the delegate from Uruguay will grow accustomed to it, but just now he is very much shocked, just as I was when I first read it.”13

This conversation troubled Eleanor. It had never occurred to her that so many negotiations and compromises could produce a document that was onesided. A veil had been pulled aside, and she saw that her fellow delegates had often felt left out of the discussions. It was imperative, she wrote, that “we should become accustomed to thinking in their terms, as well as having them thinking in our terms.” This idea sat well with her vision of an international body designed to keep war at bay: “That flow backwards and forwards of ideas and understanding,” she reflected, “is one of the great contributions of the United Nations.”14 She expressed this again years later, in a reflection on the labor involved in reconciling different perspectives:

Producing a meeting of the minds on what these rights ought to be was most difficult. That which a country or an individual considers a fundamental right depends much upon the history of freedom in that country, on the stage of political, economic, and social development, and on the political, economic, and social conditions of the moment. The Czarist Government of Russia failed to develop economic prosperity or social equality among the masses of people; it is not unnatural that Communist Russia should emphasize economic and social rights provided by the State. Our own experience was quite different: oppressed American Colonists formed a nation in which the emphasis was on individual rights with a minimum of government.15

Eleanor, in other words, argued that differences in human values reflected stages in society’s struggle to achieve freedom and prosperity. In the course of these struggles, each society or culture tends to highlight or give priority to the rights it deems most important; however, in most cases, the goals remained largely the same. Framing the debate in terms of history and priorities allowed Eleanor much more flexibility and inclusiveness. After all, these were debates about emphasis, not about fundamental differences.


  • 1 : Johannes Morsink, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 5.
  • 2 : Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York: Random House, 2001), 56.
  • 3 : Ibid., 73-74.
  • 4 : Ibid., 74.
  • 5 : American Anthropological Association, “Statement on Human Rights,” American Anthropologist 49, no. 4 (1947): 539. In June 1999, the American Anthropological Association issued a “Declaration on Human Rights and Anthropology” reconciling its position with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It reads, in part, “Thus, the AAA founds its approach on the anthropological principles of respect for concrete human differences, both collective and individual, rather than the abstract legal uniformity of Western tradition. In practical terms, however, its working definition builds on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights . . . and other treaties which bring basic human rights within the parameters of international written and customary law and practice. The AAA definition thus reflects a commitment to human rights consistent with international principles but not limited by them.”
  • 6 : “The White Man’s Burden” was the title of a poem written by Rudyard Kipling in 1899, at the height of European colonialism. It calls on Westerners to take up the challenge of civilizing the primitive peoples of the world, opening with the following lines: "Take up the White Man’s burden— Send forth the best ye breed— Go, bind your sons to exile To serve your captives’ need; To wait, in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild— Your new-caught sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child."
  • 7 : American Anthropological Association, “Statement on Human Rights,” American Anthropologist 49, no. 4 (1947): 540.
  • 8 : The issue of eugenics is extensively discussed in the Facing History and Ourselves resource Race and Membership in American History.
  • 9 : American Anthropological Association, “Statement on Human Rights,” American Anthropologist 49, no. 4 (1947): 540.
  • 10 : Karen Engle, “From Skepticism to Embrace: Human Rights and the American Anthropological Association from 1947–1999,” Human Rights Quarterly 23, no. 3 (2001): 346–47.
  • 11 : American Anthropological Association, “Statement on Human Rights,” American Anthropologist 49, no. 4 (1947): 543.
  • 12 : American Anthropological Association, “Statement on Human Rights,” American Anthropologist 49, no. 4 (1947): 542.
  • 13 : Eleanor Roosevelt, What I Hope to Leave Behind (New York: Carlson Publishing, 1995), 567.
  • 14 : Eleanor Roosevelt, What I Hope to Leave Behind (New York: Carlson Publishing, 1995), 567–68.
  • 15 : Eleanor Roosevelt, “Statement by Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, United States Representative on the Commission on Human Rights, June 18, 1948,” Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, United Nations Publications, box 4580, 1948, 1.

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