Roosevelt House celebrates the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt in writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as we mark the 70th anniversary of its adoption by the United Nations on December 10, 1948. Three years of Mrs. Roosevelt’s hard work and consensus-building produced a document that would shape the way nations treated their citizens from that time forward, and hold them responsible if they failed to adhere to its ideals.
The renowned former First Lady of the United States — whose husband President Franklin Roosevelt had advocated for both a United Nations and human rights — and equally motivated by a profound commitment to those goals, she deployed her diplomatic skills to manage the politically diverse committee that had elected her its Chair. From 1946 through 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt presided over sessions in New York, London, Geneva, and Paris. She spent long hours preparing for every meeting, and her firm grasp of the materials earned the respect of her colleagues. With that dedication and patience, a firm hand on the gavel and schedule, and esteem for her fellow delegates, she brought out the best in her close circle of international advisors, and successfully navigated the human rights assignment through the increasingly fraught currents of the Cold War.
After Eleanor Roosevelt introduced the final draft of the Declaration to the General Assembly, 48 nations gave their approval, with no negative votes. This was followed by an unprecedented standing ovation for the woman who soon became known as First Lady of the World. She continued her work on the expansion of the Declaration but progress was very slow before her term as U.S. Delegate to the United Nations ended in December 1952. It took until 1966, four years after her death, for the UN General Assembly to adopt two international treaties enlarging the scope of international human rights, the:
- International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The two Covenants, along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, now comprise the International Bill of Human Rights (IBHR) setting out civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights for all people of the world.
At this anniversary — a time when basic human rights do not thrive “everywhere in the world” as President Roosevelt had hoped — the origins of the Universal Declaration give us new inspiration and strength to continue the Roosevelts’ campaign for universal rights. It is fitting to mark this milestone at Hunter College, since Eleanor was a good friend of its students, and attended the very first human rights meetings at Hunter’s then-Bronx campus in the spring of 1946.
At Roosevelt House, the former home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, their legacy lives through undergraduate programs in human rights and public policy, and in the public programs and research projects that Hunter College hosts here. Were Eleanor Roosevelt to return, no doubt she would be enormously pleased by the central role of human rights in the educational mission at Roosevelt House. As she later wrote, “During my years at the UN, it was my work on the Human Rights Commission that I considered my most important task.”
The Exhibition ““My Most Important Task:” Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” is currently on view at Roosevelt House.