UN New York: Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 70

Eleanor Roosevelt holding a copy of Universal Declaration of Human Rights  (Photo: United Nations/courtesy photo)

Eleanor Roosevelt holding a copy of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Photo: United Nations/courtesy photo)

By Alisha Prasia and Alexa Ward

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted this historic document as Resolution 217, at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, France. It is the embodiment of universal values that transcends cultures, nations and regions, and proclaims the inalienable rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.

In June 1946, in the wake of the deadliest conflict the world had ever seen, the newly created United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) established the Commission on Human Rights, which consisted of eighteen members. The Commission, a standing body of the United Nations, established a special Universal Declaration of Human Rights Drafting Committee, which was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. The committee met in two sessions over the course of two years.

The committee finished its work in May of 1948. The draft was further discussed by the Commission on Human Rights, ECOSOC, and the Third Committee of the General Assembly. Before being adopted, UN Member States made numerous amendments.  

In 1948, before the General Assembly, Eleanor Roosevelt said, “We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere.”

In her own words, Eleanor Roosevelt explained the essence of human rights, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. [...] 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.” 

On Friday, December 10, 2018 a conference was held at the Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York, with the theme, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 70th Anniversary.” The conference was opened by Paul Sparrow, Director of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

Manuela Roosevelt, Editorial Director of Callaway Arts and Entertainment, Chair of the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Partnership and wife of David Roosevelt, grandson of FDR and Eleanor, referred to the UDHR as a “beacon of light.” She went on to say, “It is remarkable that Eleanor was able to bring the nations together, remarkable that she had this vision and that she could do it.” On Eleanor as a person she stated, “She wasn’t about Eleanor Roosevelt. She was about serving the other.”

During a panel discussion, Dr. Ellen Chesler, Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, referred to the UN as a “brilliant institution with a large capacity for civil society,” and “an institution that is close to the ground.” She referred to the UDHR as an “aspirational document that inspired civic conversation about human rights as a lived experience.” She reflected that women’s rights have become an important part of human rights over the past seventy years, and that the world is a “very different place because of this document.” 

Dr. Rebecca Adami spoke of her new book, Women and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which explores the non-Western women delegates who took part in the drafting of the UN Charter and the UDHR from 1945 to 1948. She is a Research Associate at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

A workshop was held that guided the participants to determine actionable items in four areas based on FDR’s Four Freedoms: Freedom of Expression; Freedom from Fear; Freedom from Want; and Freedom of Worship.  

The keynote address, on the topic of “UN Efforts Internationally to Improve Human Rights in Crisis Zones,” was given by Ben Majekodunmi, UN Senior Human Rights and Political Affairs Officer, in the Executive Office of the UN Secretary General. He is responsible for the day-to-day implementation of the Human Rights Up Front Initiative. He spoke about the status of human rights at the UN from four perspectives: personal; political; UN operations; and looking ahead. 

On the “personal level,” he spoke of the courage of witnesses who are willing to take significant risk in speaking up about human rights violations, stating that “the strongest expressions of human rights that I have experienced are when rights have been violated.” 

On the topic of “looking ahead,” he referred to three major challenges: migration; the environment; and peace and security. He simply stated that the human rights framework is in place, however, the politics aren’t working. 

Before the conference closed, David Roosevelt thanked Ben for the very difficult work he was engaged in and encouraged all with “Please don’t give up.”

Alexa Fish Ward served as Executive Director of the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill in Hyde Park, New York from 1989 to 1992. She is currently an International Vice President for WFWP International and Deputy Director of the UN Office.