Adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights
Adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights
Date: December 9, 1948
Source: Roosevelt, Eleanor. "Adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights." Speech to United Nations General Assembly, December 9, 1948.
About the Author: Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) is best known for being an activist First Lady during the presidential administration of her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt. A diplomat and humanitarian, she devoted the years of her widowhood helping to shape the human rights agenda of United Nations.
As U.S. delegate to the United Nations (UN), former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was credited with being the leading spirit behind the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is a document that serves as the basis for efforts to internationalize the concept of human rights.
In January 1947, Roosevelt was elected chair of the Human Rights Commission that had been established to work on the declaration. As chair, she split the commission into three committees. The committee that she led drafted the declaration, the statement of general principles that was ratified by the General Assembly of the UN. Roosevelt later wrote that she considered this work to be the most important task completed in her life.
Roosevelt encouraged the drafting committee to reach a realistic compromise without sacrificing principle. The declaration would assert for all humankind the fullest listing of human rights that the entire world community could be persuaded to adopt in principle but that no country at the time would fully meet. To increase acceptance of a fuller range of rights, the principles were phrased in general terms rather than in binding language. The other two Human Rights Commission committees developed binding human rights covenants on civil, political, cultural, and economic rights. On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The long and meticulous study and debate of which this Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the product means that it reflects the composite views of the many men and governments who have contributed to its formulation. Not every man nor every government can have what he wants in a document of this kind. There are of course particular provisions in the declaration before us with which we are not fully satisfied. I have no doubt this is true of other delegations, but taken as a whole the Delegation of the United States believes that this is a good document—even a great document—and we propose to give it our full support. The position of the United States on the various parts of the declaration is a matter of record in the Third Committee. I shall not burden the Assembly, and particularly my colleagues of the Third Committee, with a restatement of that position here.
Certain provisions of the declaration are stated in such broad terms as to be acceptable only because of the limitations in article 29 providing for limitation on the exercise of the rights for the purpose of meeting the requirements of morality, public order, and the general welfare. An example of this is the provision that everyone has the right of equal access to the public service in his country. The basic principle of equality and of nondiscrimination as to public employment is sound, but it cannot be accepted without limitations. My government, for example, would consider that this is unquestionably subject to limitation in the interest of public order and the general welfare. It would not consider that the exclusion from public employment of persons holding subversive political beliefs and not loyal to the basic principles and practices of the constitution and laws of the country would in any way infringe upon this right.
Likewise, my Government has made it clear in the course of the development of the declaration that it does not consider that the economic and social and cultural rights stated in the declaration imply an obligation on governmental action. This was made quite clear in the Human Rights Commission text of article 23 which served as a so-called "umbrella" article to the articles on economic and social rights. We consider that the principle has not been affected by the fact that this article no longer contains a reference to the articles which follow it. This in no way affects our whole-hearted support for the basic principles of economic, social, and cultural rights set forth in these articles.
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 basic principles of law or 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.
We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind, that is the approval by the General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recommended by the Third Committee. This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere. We hope its proclamation by the General Assembly will be an event comparable to the proclamation of the Declaration of the Rights of the Man by the French people in 1789, the adoption of the Bill of Rights by the people of the United States, and the adoption of comparable declarations at different times in other countries.
At a time when there are so many issues on which we find it difficult to reach a common basis of agreement, it is a significant fact that 58 states have found such a large measure of agreement in the complex field of human rights. This must be taken as testimony of our common aspiration first voiced in the Charter of the United Nations to lift men everywhere to a higher standard of life and to a greater enjoyment of freedom. Man's desire for peace lies behind this declaration. The realization that the fragrant violation of human rights by Nazi and Fascist countries sowed the seeds of the last world war has supplied the impetus for the work which brings us to the moment of achievement here today.
In a recent speech in Canada, Gladstone Murray said:
"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."
This declaration is based upon the spiritual fact that man must have freedom in which to develop his full stature and through common effort to raise the level of human dignity. We have much to do to fully achieve and to assure the rights set forth in this declaration. But having them put before us with the moral backing of 58 nations will be a great step forward.
As we here bring to fruition our labors on this Declaration of Human Rights, we must at the same time rededicate ourselves to the unfinished task which lies before us. We can now move on with new courage and inspiration to the completion of an international covenant on human rights and of measures for the implementation of human rights.
In conclusion I feel that I cannot do better than to repeat the call to action by Secretary Marshall in his opening statement to this Assembly:
"Let this third regular session of the General Assembly approve by an overwhelming majority the Declaration of Human Rights as a statement of conduct for all; and let us, as Members of the United Nations, conscious of our own short-comings and imperfections, join our effort in all faith to live up to this high standard."
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasizes that human rights are basic to the human condition. It has focused attention on freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, and freedom from fear. Since its passage in 1948, governments, international organizations, and ordinary people have asserted Universal Declaration provisions in situations where no binding human rights laws exist. In this manner, the declaration has become recognized as the preeminent human rights document in the world.
The declaration has led to other binding human rights agreements, notably the International Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 1965, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966, the International Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women in 1979, the International Convention Against Torture in 1984, and the International Convention on Rights of the Child in 1989. At the same time, numerous citizens' organizations have sprung up to support human rights, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These groups build on the concepts pioneered in the Declaration by internationalizing human rights. The international condemnation of abusive governments that has become a feature of the world since 1948 is one of the most important legacies of the declaration. To a large extent, Roosevelt's dream of a worldwide creation of cultures of human rights has been achieved.
Alfredson, Gudmundur and Asbjorn Eide. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Common Standard of Achievement. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1999.
Ramcharan, B. G. Human Rights: Thirty Years After the Universal Declaration. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1979.
Robinson, Nehemiah. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Its Origin, Significance, Application, and Interpretation. New York: Institute of Jewish Affairs, 1958.
Fifty Years After the Declaration: The United Nations' Record on Human Rights, edited by Teresa Wagner and Leslie Carbone. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2001.