Where Do Human Rights Begin?

What, then, did the authors of the Declaration achieve? What did they think was their primary achievement? Soon after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, critics spoke up. Why had no binding legal agreement or covenant been created? Were prospects for completion of a successful covenant and its enforcement bright or dim? Eleanor was aware of some of the problems. For the time being, she explained, the document was

simply a declaration that sets standards and puts down things for which we want to strive. It has no legal binding value, but it is a preparation for the coming bill of rights. When the [legal] Covenant is written, then we will have to be prepared to ask our various nations to ratify that Covenant and to accept the fact that the Covenant has legal binding value.1

As early as April 1948 (several months before the Declaration was finally adopted), Eleanor published an article entitled “The Promise of Human Rights.” She wrote: “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.” In a speech before the United Nations General Assembly, Eleanor fearlessly suggested that the Declaration  “may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.”2 Still, she knew that it would take years to create the treaties and courts needed to enforce the Declaration.

It was impossible to dispute, Eleanor acknowledged, that no article in the document could be legally enforced. But to place the emphasis on that fact was to underestimate the Declaration’s power. Eleanor made it clear that she and her colleagues had “great the force of documents which do express ideals.” They were aware that while words, ideas, and ideals may mean little by themselves, they hold great power when properly disseminated and embraced: “They carry no weight unless the people know them, unless the people understand them, unless the people demand that they be lived.”3 This is where education mattered. Once those ideas come to life in the public mind, they could bring about real change.4

Moreover, as events teach us nearly every day, it takes much more than documents, agreements, and courts to ensure that rights are respected. When political will is lacking, the international community routinely fails to defend the downtrodden. So it was crucial that the human rights enterprise expanded beyond the confines of politics and the legal system. Eleanor understood this well: “I...think,” she said in 1948, “that the Declaration will help forward very largely the education of the peoples of the world.”5 The next year, she appealed to leaders worldwide to

make the Declaration a living document, something that is not just words on paper, but something which we really strive to bring to the lives of all people, all people everywhere in the world.

Now to do that we, all of us, will have to study this document. We will have to understand how it came to be written, why certain things are in it....M. Laugier, out of his wisdom, said, ‘This is very valuable. People who discuss as much as this over ideas are going home to talk about them afterwards.’ I hope that he was right, because that is the way this document will come to mean something in the lives of people all over the world.6

A few years later, Eleanor gave a speech at the United Nations which she called “Where Do Human Rights Begin?” In her view, human rights began

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 world.7

Fortunately, such change began right away. Three years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly, Eleanor announced that “the language of that Declaration has been written into the constitution of a number of states.”8 John Humphrey, who directed the human rights division until 1966, agreed. “I was happy,” Humphrey recalled in his memoir,

about the [Human Rights Commission’s initial] decision to concentrate on the Declaration.... The Declaration, even though it might not be technically binding, would apply to all states and would have the great authority of the United Nations behind it. It would also be a catalyst of national and international 228 Fundamental Freedoms: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights legislation.... Even in 1948, my instinct told me that eventually it would become part of international law whatever the intentions of its authors, or the form in which it was adopted.9

Indeed, in a diary entry from November 20, 1948, Humphrey described a conversation with Eleanor in which he anticipated the importance of the Declaration for future generations. “On Friday evening,” he wrote,

I talked with Mrs. Roosevelt while she had some tea and sandwiches(having missed her dinner). I told her that I now think that the Declaration will prove to be more important than the [Convention], that the distinction between moral force and legal binding force means little in the present state of international organization, and that the Declaration will develop its own implementation. I am firmly convinced...that this Declaration will prove to be a tremendously important instrument.10

As more countries acknowledged the claims of the United Nations (and its emphasis on internationalism), some began to question the universality of its tenets. Had Western values prevailed, and were they about to be forced upon all other cultures? Many feared that they were. But the very diversity of world cultures did not, according to Eleanor, rule out the possibility that people from different backgrounds could come to an agreement that satisfied them all.

A shared moral framework for all cultures was, after all, the true goal of the Declaration. “The really important thing,” said Eleanor,

was to get down on paper, for people all over the world, with different backgrounds, customs, and stages of development, the basic idea that every individual had certain rights and freedoms that could not be taken away from him. It gave respect and importance to the individual, which is, of course, a basic tenet of democracy.11

Could people who came from different cultures really agree on their future moral goals, as Eleanor hoped that they would? “Some people feel,” Eleanor had argued in 1940, that human nature cannot be changed, but I think when we look at what has been achieved by the Nazi and Fascist dictators, we have to acknowledge the fact that we do not live in a static condition, but that the influences of education, of moral and physical training have an effect upon our whole beings. If human beings can be changed to fit a Nazi or Fascist pattern or a Communist pattern, certainly we should not lose heart at the thought of changing human nature to fit a Democratic way of life.12

In the end, she believed, the imperfections of the Declaration were not so important. If it had managed to suggest how human beings could be truly free, that was sufficient. In the speech she gave before the General Assembly just as the Declaration was being approved, Eleanor made that point:

The central fact is that man is fundamentally a moral being, that the light we have is imperfect does not matter so long as we are always trying to improve it....We are equal in sharing the moral freedom that distinguishes us as men. Man’s status makes each individual an end in himself. No man is by nature simply the servant of the state or of another man....The ideal and fact of freedom—and not technology—are the true distinguishing marks of our civilization.13

Who Was John Humphrey?

The Canadian scholar and activist John Peters Humphrey (1905–1995) was entrusted by Eleanor with the task of producing a first sketch for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Humphrey’s childhood—remarkably like Eleanor’s—bore deep marks of tragedy. One biographer wrote:

Humphrey’s childhood had been a painful one. He was the third child of Frank Monmouth Humphrey, a St. John shoe manufacturer....Frank died of cancer when John was only thirteen months old. At age six, John’s left arm was amputated at the shoulder after an accident in which his clothes caught fire. Finally, when he was eleven, his mother also died of cancer.14

Humphrey went on to spend four years at boarding school, the Rothesay Collegiate School. His years there, in contrast to Eleanor’s experience at Allenswood, were almost uniformly unpleasant and humiliating. Scholars argue that the abuse he suffered at the hands of his teachers made him acutely sensitive to cruelty in general. From there, he went on to study accounting and law.

After practicing law privately between 1929 and 1936, he eventually became a professor at McGill University. During the Great Depression, Humphrey became a socialist. His interest in the welfare of working people was manifested in many articles he inserted into his draft of the Declaration. Many of these “social and economic” rights made it into the final Declaration.

The Declaration was designed to define and ensure the freedoms for which all human beings yearn. For Eleanor, the classic demands for freedom and equal opportunities had been voiced in the historical struggle for democracy.15 That struggle was far from over, and the Declaration would help move it toward its climax. In her earlier wartime essay “The Moral Basis of Democracy,” Eleanor stated this point plainly: if we provide all citizens with basic rights and freedoms,

we have paved the way for the first hope for real peace the world has ever known. All people desire peace, but they are led to war because what is offered them in this world seems to be unjust, and they are constantly seeking a way to right that injustice.16

Elsewhere she suggested that the people’s desires could be satisfied by honoring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

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 greater sense of assurance.17

Her sentiments were echoed in the Declaration’s first articles, as well as in the words of her colleague Charles Malik. Speaking on February 26, 1948,Malik asserted that

the question of human rights is second only to the question of the maintenance of peace and security. In fact, the violation of human rights is one of the causes of war, so that to achieve the first aim of the United Nations, namely the maintenance of international peace and security, you must first guarantee the observance of human rights.18

While the Declaration’s legal status remained a topic of debate, its moral authority did not. Humphrey later commented:

Its impact on world public opinion has been as great as [if not greater than] that of any contemporary international instrument, including the Charter of the United Nations....In the United Nations, where the Declaration is constantly invoked, it has become the criterion for judging the conduct of states in their relations with individuals and groups....It has inspired or influenced so many resolutions in various organs of the United Nations and the specialized agencies that it would be difficult to count them. It has also inspired a growing body of treaties.19

But Humphrey knew that the true test was yet to come: “The final judgment of history will be determined by the impact which the Declaration has and will have on the actual conduct of states and of individual men and women everywhere.” Still, even if there was “little reason for thinking that human rights...are better respected now than they were before 1948...the international community now possesses ‘a common standard of achievement’ by reference to which the conduct of these governments can be and is judged.”20

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has proven to be remarkably influential. Scholars agree that it has been “the foundation of much of the post-1945 codification of human rights, and the international legal system is replete with global and regional treaties based, in large measure, on the Declaration.”21 Johannes Morsink, a scholar of political theory, recently concluded that “fifty international human rights instruments...can be said to have been inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”22 For better or worse, the Declaration is now routinely cited in legal cases around the world—it has come to have the legal force of a law. Many national constitutions formally recognize that the rights enshrined in the Declaration take priority over any national laws. In addition, hundreds of organizations arose to protect the principles of the Declaration. Those organizations, inspired by the principles laid out in the Declaration, work to mobilize public opinion and monitor the human rights records of countries around the world.23

  1. Citations

    • 1 Eleanor Roosevelt, “Making Human Rights Come Alive,” in What I Hope to Leave Behind: The Essential Essays of Eleanor Roosevelt, ed. Allida M. Black (Brooklyn: Carlson, 1995), 559.
    • 2 Eleanor Roosevelt, “The Promise of Human Rights,” in Courage in a Dangerous World: The Political Writings of Eleanor Roosevelt, ed. Allida M. Black (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 558.
    • 3 Eleanor Roosevelt, “Making Human Rights Come Alive,” in What I Hope to Leave Behind, ed. Allida M. Black (Brooklyn: Carlson, 1995), 563.
    • 4 Eleanor Roosevelt, “Promise of Human Rights,” in Courage in a Dangerous World, ed. Allida M. Black (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 162.
    • 5 Eleanor Roosevelt, “Promise of Human Rights,” in Courage in a Dangerous World, ed. Allida M. Black (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 162.
    • 6 Eleanor Roosevelt, “Making Human Rights Come Alive,” in What I Hope to Leave Behind, ed. Black, 559–60. Henri Laugier of France was the Assistant Secretary-General in the United Nations Department of Social Affairs, which oversaw the work of the Human Rights Commission. Laugier was a good friend of Eleanor Roosevelt’s.
    • 7 Eleanor Roosevelt, “Where Do Human Rights Begin?” in Courage in a Dangerous World, ed. Allida M. Black (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 190.
    • 8 Eleanor Roosevelt, “Statement on Draft Covenant on Human Rights,” in What I Hope to Leave Behind, ed. Black, 585.
    • 9 John P. Humphrey, Human Rights and the United Nations: A Great Adventure (New York: Transnational Publishers, 1984), 64–65.
    • 10 A. J. Hobbins, ed., On the Edge of Greatness: The Diaries of John Humphrey, First Director of the United Nations Division of Human Rights, vol. 1 (Montreal: McGill University Library, 1994), 2 81–82.
    • 11 Eleanor Roosevelt, “Making Human Rights Come Alive,” in What I Hope to Leave Behind, ed. Allida M. Black (Brooklyn: Carlson, 1995), 571.
    • 12 Eleanor Roosevelt, “The Moral Basis of Democracy,” in What I Hope to Leave Behind (Brooklyn: Carlson, 1995), 85.
    • 13 “Adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights,” December 9, 1948.
    • 14 A. J. Hobbins, “John Humphrey’s Schooldays: The Influence of School Experience on the Canadian who Drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” McGill Journal of Education, Spring 2002.
    • 15 Eleanor sketched a short history of democracy that started in medieval England and ended with the Declaration of Independence. See Roosevelt, “The Moral Basis of Democracy,” in What I Hope to Leave Behind, ed. Black, 70–79.
    • 16 What I Hope to Leave Behind, ed. Allida M. Black (Brooklyn: Carlson, 1995), 89.
    • 17 Eleanor Roosevelt, “Promise of Human Rights,” in Courage in a Dangerous World, ed. Allida M. Black (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 558.
    • 18 Dr. Charles Malik (Lebanon), “The Basic Issues of the International Bill of Human Rights,” (speech delivered before a conference of American educators in Lake Success, NY , Feb. 26, 1948), United Nations Publications, box 4580, folder UN Publications, 4.
    • 19 John P. Humphrey, Human Rights and the United Nations: A Great Adventure (New York: Transnational Publishers, 1984), 64–65.
    • 20 John P. Humphrey, Human Rights and the United Nations: A Great Adventure (New York: Transnational Publishers, 1984), 64–65.
    • 21 Hurst Hunnum, “The Status of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in National and International Law,” Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law (1995/1996): 289, quoted in Johannes Morsink, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), xi.
    • 22 Morsink, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), xi.
    • 23 Amnesty International website, accessed August 21, 2009.

Related Content


Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Matter?

Consider the reverberations that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has made in the years since it was adopted.

Justice & Human Rights

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

Learn about one of the challenges of writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: defining common rights that represented all nations and cultures around the world.

Democracy & Civic Engagement

Making Rights Universal

Students analyse four rights in the UDHR and decide whether they are universal and enjoyed by all in the world today.

Justice & Human Rights

Introduction to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Examine the historical context leading up to the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and understand how Eleanor Roosevelt became involved in the process.

Search Our Global Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.