The devastation of World War II sparked an international desire for peace. It also encouraged the attempt to create a system of principles that could ensure the protection of basic human rights and dignity for all. Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was one of the first American delegates to the United Nations, which was founded in 1945. A longtime activist on behalf of minorities, women, workers, and refugees, Roosevelt became the chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights. She worked with a small group of representatives from countries around the world to define the most essential universal rights and to establish them in an official document. On December 10, 1948, she urged the United Nations General Assembly to approve the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):
In giving our approval to the Declaration today, it is of primary importance that we keep clearly in mind the basic character of the document. It is not a treaty; it is not an international agreement. It is not and does not purport to be a statement of law or of legal obligation. It is a Declaration of basic principles of human rights and freedoms, to be stamped with the approval of the General Assembly by formal vote of its members, and to serve as a common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations.
The UDHR was drafted and approved by a large group of international representatives. In order to bring this group to agreement, Eleanor Roosevelt painstakingly facilitated a process that would reflect a shared vision from the diverse perspectives of committee members. Representatives including Charles Malik of Lebanon, P. C. Chang of China, and René Cassin of France negotiated carefully to ensure that their values were reflected in the document and that the document could speak for all people. They repeatedly asked, “Does this reflect our interests well enough? Does it speak for others as well?”
The United Nations approved the declaration, but the work of the commission was only partially done. The UDHR, in Roosevelt’s words, “would say to the peoples of the world ‘this is what we hope human rights may mean to all people in the years to come.’” The second part of the commission’s work was to be “a covenant which would be in the form of a treaty to be presented to the nations of the world.” Every nation that ratified the treaty “would then be obligated to change its laws wherever they did not conform to the points contained in the covenant.”
The commission thought a treaty might be worked out within the next few years, but this hope proved to be too optimistic. The work to secure human rights around the world remains an ongoing struggle today.