“My Most Important Task” Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

This exhibit was originally on display from September 14 through December 21, 2018.


This exhibit 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 diploma-tic 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 assign-ment 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) and the 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, econo-mic, 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.”

Part One — The United Nations

Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, Roosevelt Island, New York City

Dedication October 17, 2012 attended by former President Bill Clinton, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo,  Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, former Governor Mario M. Cuomo, former Secretary of States Henry A. Kissinger, and former United States Ambassador to the United Nations William vanden Heuvel who revived the plan to build the park and led the fundraising for its construction to a 1973 design by architect Louis I. Kahn. Portrait sculpture of President Roosevelt by Jo Davidson.

The Roosevelts Work For Peace

As Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I, Franklin Roosevelt knew the costs of war, with 116,000 Americans killed, including members of the Roosevelt family. He saw the tremendous destruction in France during his trip to Europe in 1918. A year later he and wife Eleanor attended the Versailles Conference where a peace treaty was written to include President Woodrow Wilson’s idea for a League of Nations to prevent future wars. When the U.S. Senate failed to ratify American membership in the League in March 1920, both Roosevelts looked for other ways to prevent armed conflict.

Eleanor Roosevelt had also been deeply engaged with the war effort through her Red Cross work and had supported the League. In 1923 she served on a jury to decide a $100,000 Peace Award funded by Edward Bok, publisher of the Ladies Home Journal. Applicants were asked to prepare a plan “by which the United States may co-operate with other nations for the achieve-ment and preservation of world peace.” Franklin was one of the anonymous submissions with his “Plan to Preserve World Peace” where he proposed eliminating the League requirement for unanimous decisions involving sanctions and the use of collective force. “Common sense,” he wrote, “cannot defend a procedure by which one or two recalcitrant nations could block the will of the great majority.” The prize was awarded in 1924 to Dr. Charles Levermore, a peace activist who sought cooperation with the League and participation in the Court of International Justice which had been established following the war.

But isolationism had regained strength in the United States and Eleanor Roosevelt was called to testify before Congress about the peace prize.  She succeeded in assuaging its concerns and remained a supporter of the League and the World Court, as well as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Franklin would observe the failures of the League in the 1920s and 1930s but take away the basic notion of an international forum to prevent war. He would later transform that concept into his idea for the United Nations.

President Roosevelt and The Four Freedoms

President Roosevelt delivered his annual State of the Union address to Congress on January 6, 1941.  By that date, war was raging around the globe and Americans were divided about whether to remain neutral or assist their allies. It was in this context that FDR defined the “Four Freedoms,” a vision of human rights in a peaceful world.  These Freedoms would become the core of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.… The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society…. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them.

Well known artist Norman Rockwell was so inspired by the president’s speech that he translated the Four Freedoms into paintings that were published in the Saturday Evening Post magazine (February-March 1943), and popularized in posters a during a war bond drive. Original posters of these iconic images now hang in the Four Freedoms Room at Roosevelt House. 

Foundations for the United Nations and Human Rights, 1920-1945

Both the United Nations, chartered in June 1945, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in December 1948, were built on prior efforts to create organizations that would prevent war and secure human rights.

1920 The League of Nations. The League, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, originated as part of the Versailles Treaty ending World War I. A key provision was members’ pledge to submit disputes to arbitration to prevent war. On March 19, 1920, the U.S. Senate voted against ratifying the treaty establishing the League, a failure attributable to President Wilson’s refusal to make compromises that would have made it acceptable and his lack of consultation with Republican leaders. Many of the League’s committees and commissions were mirrored later in the work of the United Nations, including those dealing with refugees, disarmament, public health, children, and territorial disputes.  More enduring than the League were the associated bodies established at the same time: the Permanent Court of International Justice and the International Labor Organization.

1928 The Kellogg-Briand Pact. This pact focused on outlawing the use of war as an instrument of national policy and settling disputes by peaceful means. It was signed by 63 nations and was ratified by the U.S. Senate which noted that the United States did not give up its right to self-defense or require its action if signatories broke the agreement. It was named after French Minister of Foreign Affairs Aristide Briand and U.S. Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg.

1941 The Four Freedoms. In his annual address to Congress on January 6, President Roosevelt told the nation that “we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.” He enumerated freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom from want, “everywhere in the world.” The fourth was freedom from fear, meaning freedom from war.  And concluded, “Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere.”

1941 The Declaration of St. James’s Palace.  By June 12, 1941, most of Europe had been conquered by the Axis powers; only England held out against the Germans. Its representative, along with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, the exiled governments of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Yugoslavia, and the Free French, signed a declaration in London already looking to a post-war world: “The only true basis of enduring peace is the willing cooperation of free peoples in a world in which, relieved of the menace of aggression, all may enjoy economic and social security; it is our intention to work together, and with other free peoples, both in war and peace, to this end.”

1941 The Atlantic Charter. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met at sea and issued a declaration on August 14.  Although the United States was not yet at war, it joined its future ally with another state-mentof certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they based their hopes for a better future for the world.” The Charter referred back to the Four Freedoms, that “all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want,” and it called for a system of disarmament and a means to attain this security.  Its other clauses would later resonate in the charter of the United Nations.

1942 Declaration of the United Nations.  On January 1, 1942, less than a month after the United States entered World War II, President Roosevelt joined with Prime Minister Churchill, T.V. Soong of China, and Maxim Litvinov of the USSR pledging to pursue the war and to remain united in seeking a peace agree-ment. The Declaration directly referenced the principles of the Atlantic Charter, thus committing its signatories to a future effort to secure peace.  On January 2, 22 other nations signed this “Declaration of the United Nations,” the first time this name had been used.

President Roosevelt would refer to the Declaration of the United Nations and the Four Freedoms numerous times in the following years, such as his Flag Day speech on June 14, 1942:

Today on Flag Day we celebrate the declaration of the United Nations—that great alliance dedicated to the defeat of our foes and to the establishment of a true peace based on the freedom of man…. The four freedoms of common humanity are as much elements of man’s needs as air and sunlight, bread and salt. Deprive him of all these freedoms and he dies—deprive him of a part of them and a part of him withers. Give them to him in full and abundant measure and he will cross the threshold of a new age, the greatest age of man. These freedoms are the rights of men of every creed and every race, wherever they live. This is their heritage, long withheld. We of the United Nations have the power and the men and the will at last to assure man’s heritage.

1943 Moscow and Teheran. The basis for an international organization to prevent war begins to take shape at a meeting in Moscow on October 30 attended by representatives of the United States, Britain, China, and the Soviet Union, who declare that they “recognize the necessity of establishing at the earliest practicable date a general international organization, based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all peace-loving states, and open to membership by all such states, large and small, for the maintenance of international peace and security.” Meeting a month later in Teheran, on December 1, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin reaffirm their commitment to this international organization.

1944 Dumbarton Oaks Conference. Representatives of China, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union spent two months (August-September) at Dumbarton Oaks, near Washington DC, writing a proposal for the international organization called for in the Moscow accords, and then sent to all the allied countries for comment. In the U.S. several million copies were circulated and publicity was organized in the major media of the day. The proposal for a United Nations Organization was very close to the final version, including a General Assembly, a Security Council, an International Court of Justice, a Secretariat, and an Economic and Social Council. Most importantly, the idea that member nations would contribute armed forces to act on behalf of the UN’s Security Council where conflicts emerged, was a significant change from the League of Nations which had no such provision.  The Dumbarton Oaks proposal referred to the promotion by the United Nations of “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

1945 Yalta Agreement. Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill met in Yalta and took up the question of voting in the Security Council. They agreed that each permanent member (England, Soviet Union, China, France, and the United States) would hold a veto on any decisions considered by the Council. On February 11 they announced that “a Conference of United Nations would meet in San Francisco April 25, 1945, to prepare the charter of such an organization, along the lines proposed in the formal conversations of Dumbarton Oaks

Birth of the United Nations, 1945

April 12, 1945. President Roosevelt dies. Before the President’s death, he had drafted a speech for the San Francisco conference about his hopes for peace, in which the United Nations would play a central role:

We seek peace—enduring peace. More than an end to war, we want an end to the beginnings of all wars—yes, an end to this brutal, inhuman, and thoroughly impractical method of settling the differences between governments…. if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together, in the same world, at peace….  Let me assure you that my hand is the steadier for the work that is to be done, that I move more firmly into the task, knowing that you—millions and millions of you—are joined with me in the resolve to make this work endure.

April 25, 1945. President Harry Truman speaks by radio to the opening session of the United Nations conference in San Francisco.

June 26, 1945.  Charter of the United Nations signed by 50 nations. The Charter was revolutionary and represented a significant change for international law as it included unprecedented language about human rights.  Starting with the Preamble, where members “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small,” and other references to human rights are woven through the document. In Article 55, U.N. members pledge to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion,” and in Article 56 pledge to take action to achieve that purpose which is assigned to the Economic and Social Council in Article 60.


This commitment to human rights is reflected in President Truman’s speech at the closing session of the conference in San Francisco:

It has already been said by many that this is only a first step to a lasting peace. ….Under this document we have good reason to expect the framing of an international bill of rights, acceptable to all the nations involved. That bill of rights will be as much a part of international life as our own Bill of Rights is a part of our Constitution. The Charter is dedicated to the achievement and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Unless we can attain those objectives for all men and women everywhere–without regard to race, language or religion-we cannot have permanent peace and security. 

July 28, 1945. The charter of the United Nations is ratified by the U.S. Senate. President Roosevelt had done his work so well in preparing members of Congress for this new organization to prevent war that U.S. membership was approved by a vote of 89 to 2 (Republican isolationists William Langer of North Dakota and Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota). Senator Thomas “Tom” Connally of Texas, then the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said to his colleagues before the ratification vote: “Those senators who believe we should tread our path alone will vote against this Charter. But those who realize that this can’t be done and that the United States cannot live in a cellophane wrapper will favor the Charter.”

October 24, 1945, The United Nations comes into existence approved by a majority of nations and the governments of China, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. In the following years, October 24 will be celebrated annually around the world as United Nations Day.

December 4, 1945. The US Senate approves full participation in the United Nations by a vote of 65 to 7 after a week of debate, which included rejecting an amendment that would have required the President to get Senate approval before committing troops for action under the U.N. Security Council. Provision was made for the Senate to approve or reject U.S. delegates to the General Assembly. 

1951-Present, Headquarters of the United Nations, New York City.

The U.S. Congress invited the UN to build its headquarters in America on December 11, 1945, an offer that was accepted by the General Assembly in February 1946 during its first meetings in London. Numerous sites were considered but New York won out when John D. Rockefeller, Jr., donated $8.5 million to purchase land the East River in midtown Manhattan. With zoning and planning help from the city, the project moved forward when the UN accepted the offer. By the end of 1947 architectural plans had been approved, and the next year the US government made an interest free loan of $65 million to build the complex. The lead architect and planner was Wallace K. Harrison of the US, working with an international advisory board. President Harry Truman came to lay the cornerstone on October 24, 1949, United Nations Day, “These are the most important buildings in the world, for they are the center of man’s hope for peace and a better life. This is the place where the nations of the world will work together to make that hope a reality. This occasion is a source of special pride to the people of the United States…. These buildings are not a monument to the unanimous agreement of nations on all things, but they signify that the peoples of the world are of one mind in their determina-tion to solve common problems by working together.” The 39-story Secretariat was the first completed building, opening in 1951. The next year, the General Assembly and Conference buildings opened for delegates and staff.

Eleanor Roosevelt, My Day, June 5, 1948

I was glad to read that the House passed the bill providing for a loan to the United Nations for the building of its permanent home on the East River here in New York City. The loan will be without interest and will be repaid in annual installments over a period of thirty years. I am sure that people who are working in the United Nations will be deeply grateful when this permanent home is finally built. The present conditions under which the permanent secretariat has to work at Lake Success can only be endured because the people doing the work are deeply interested in seeing something creative accomplished. They feel that they are part of an important movement which may save the world from another holocaust and, in spite of discouragements and discomforts, that is an end worth struggling to achieve.


Part Two

Early Meeting Locations for the UN and the Drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

March-August, 1946. Hunter College, The Bronx.

Built 1929-31, the campus had just been turned back to the College after three years as the main training center for the WAVES (women members of the Navy), when Mayor William O’Dwyer offered it to the UN. Just before the UN started its deliberations there, on February 27 Mrs. Roosevelt spoke to over 2,000 people (and a radio audience) supporting the work of the UN in the auditorium of Hunter’s Park Avenue building (today’s North Building). In the Bronx the Security Council met in the Gymnasium Building and the Commission on Human Rights, headed by Mrs. Roosevelt, met in Gillet Hall shown here.

May 3, 1946. My Day.  The experiment of driving up to Hunter College yesterday was fairly successful, but it still took me nearly 50 minutes to make the trip! It is a pleasanter trip by car, but I am not sure that driving in New York City isn’t more wearisome than taking the subway, even though the latter doesn’t start at your own door and bring you back there.

Eleanor recalled, “The facilities for our meetings were not perfect but we were comparatively comfortable. We usually met in a classroom, perhaps ten or twelve persons working on a particular phase of the program, and sat around a U-shaped table. In the center of the U would be a table for the official interpreter because at that time we didn’t have the elaborate set-up for instantaneous translation that now exists at the United Nations.

1946-1950, New York City Building at Flushing Meadows, Corona Park, Queens.

The New York City Building was built to house the New York City Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair and became a recreation center for the newly created Flushing Meadows Corona Park. It was refurbished and expanded in 1946 to host the United Nations until a permanent headquarters could be built. Renova-tions were done to house the General Assembly, as well as offices, meeting rooms, media facilities, a cafeteria, and person-nel offering simultaneous translation services. After the UN moved to Manhattan, the building again housed recreational activities and later became the Queens Museum.

Mrs. Roosevelt described the first meeting of the General Assembly there in late October 1946:

I was looking up at the rostrum, back of which was a wonderful world map, flanked on either side by blue velvet curtains. The arrangements for the press and radio are really quite remark-able. There are two galleries along the sides and one at the back, and I was told that 300 seats are available for the press of the world. I saw many familiar faces among the photographers who crowded around us first. As the advisers and then the delegates began to gather, more and more acquaintances appeared upon the scene. Many of the representatives’ wives were present, and as they walked to their seats one got an exceptional preview of the latest fall styles in hats and gowns.

August 1946-1948, Sperry Gyroscope Plant at Lake Success, Long Island.

The company had originated in Brooklyn but the 90-acre Lake Success site was built in the early 1941 to meet the military needs of World War II, manufacturing the most advanced navi-gation and weaponry equipment for the air force, including radar systems, bomb sights, and landing equipment. The UN had space enough in one of the buildings for its burgeoning admini-strative staff as well as meetings, and delegates were welcomed in arrival by the flags of all nations

January-February, 1946. Methodist Central Hall, London.

Built in 1912 as a site for worship and events, in the heart of London near Parliament. Here delegates from the 51 member nations attended the first meeting of the General Assembly from January 10 to February 14, 1946, elected the first President and Secretary-General, and organized the Security Council. The Economic and Social Council, which would oversee the writing of the Universal Declaration, met nearby at Church House, Church of England offices next to Westminster Abbey.

Eleanor Roosevelt, Debut as Delegate

December 20, 1945. The U.S. Senate approves Eleanor Roosevelt as one of President Truman’s bipartisan group of nominees to serve as delegates to the United Nations for its first meetings in London. The vote for Mrs. Roosevelt was 89-1. The lone dissenter was Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, an ardent segregationist, who was, as the New York Times reported, “severely critical of Mrs. Roosevelt’s public statements on behalf of the American Negro.”

In her My Day column of Friday, December 22, Mrs. Roosevelt describes what this appointment means to her:

It is an honor, but also a very great responsibility. I know it has come to me largely because my husband laid the foundation for this Organization through which we all hope to build world peace… Some things I can take to this first meeting – – a sincere desire to understand the problems of the rest of the world and our relationship to them; a real good-will for all peoples throughout the world; a hope that I shall be able to build a sense of personal trust and friendship with my co-workers…. The time has come however when we must recognize that our mutual devotion to our own land must never blind us to the good of all lands and of all peoples. …In the end, as Wendell Wilkie said, we are “One World” and that which injures any one of us, injures all of us. Only by remembering this will we finally have a chance to build a lasting peace.

December 31, 1945.  Sailing on the Queen Elizabeth, Eleanor Roosevelt departed for London with her colleagues: Senators Tom Connally (Democrat) of Texas, Arthur H. Vandenberg (Republican) of Michigan, and Edward R. Stettinius, former Secretary of State under Presidents Roosevelt and Truman who had chaired the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, gone to Yalta, and chaired the San Francisco Conference that had written the final U.N. Charter.  They would be joined there by the head of the delegation, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, and five alternates, equally bipartisan. During the voyage to London, Eleanor and the other American delegates spent hours studying position papers. As she later wrote, “getting up early and doing your preparatory work were exceedingly important if you expected to achieve anything in negotiations with representa-tives of other nations on the various committees.” For the coming meetings, Eleanor was asked to serve on Committee Three, the Committee on Humanitarian, Social and Cultural Concerns. As she read through the background materials, “I began to realize that Committee 3 might be much more important than had been expected. And, in time, this proved to be true.” 

January 10, 1946. The First Session of the United Nations General Assembly was held in London at Central Hall in Westminster. Paul-Henri Spaak of Belgium was elected president, and Trygve Lie of Norway, Secretary-General.  During the next few weeks, among the most contentious issues before the representatives of 51 member nations was the plight of 12 million refugees/displaced in Europe, many in temporary camps.  The Soviet position was that people had no choice but to be repatriated to their home countries, even against their will.  Eleanor was asked by her delegation to respond to this, her diplomatic debut, which she did forcefully and clearly, staking out the position that it was the right of refugees to decide if they wanted to return to their home countries.  Her skills as a speaker and wily assessment of the moment were put to good use as the evening wore on and the Russians tried to delay the vote.  She realized that the South American “votes might be decisive. So I talked about Simon Bolivar and his stand for the freedom of the people of Latin America. I talked and watched the delegates and to my joy the South American representatives stayed with us to the end and, when the vote came, we won… This vote meant that the Western nations would have to worry about the ultimate fate of the refugees for a long, long time, but the principle of the right of an individual to make his own decisions was a victory well worthwhile.””  She would consistently defend this position, until freedom of choice to live where one wanted became defined as a human right. Once the general Assembly concluded its meetings, she visited Germany to see the refugee camps in person before returning to the United States.

January 23, 1946. Eleanor tells the readers of her newspaper column about the first meetings of Committee Three, the Committee on Humanitarian, Social and Cultural Concerns, and the tasks it had been assigned regarding a commission on human rights to “formulate an international Bill of Rights—[and] make recommendations for an international declaration or convention on such matters as civil liberties, the status of women, freedom of information, protection of minorities, and prevention of discrimination on grounds of race, sex, language or religion. A few other matters come under this heading, but these alone will show you that such a commission is almost a necessity if we are to build peace.”

Eleanor Roosevelt: Creating Human Rights, 1946

Mrs. Roosevelt was one of the greatest personalities ever to be associated with the United Nations, and her great prestige was one of the chief assets of the Human Rights Commission in the early years.                                                  John P. Humphrey

April-June 1946.  Committee Three, Committee on Humanitarian, Social and Cultural Concerns, asked nine delegates to serve on the Nuclear Commission on Human Rights to make recommendations on how to structure the work of a permanent Human Rights Commission, as called for in the Charter of the United Nations.  Discussions began on the Hunter College campus in the Bronx, temporarily assigned to the UN.  Eleanor was elected chair of the group which decided that the first project of a permanent Human Rights Commission should be to write a bill of human rights. Committee Three accepts this and decides that the Commission on Human Rights will have 18 members, including the 5 permanent members of the Security Council, and 13 additional members with three year terms to be rotated among other countries.  The Commission meets and Eleanor Roosevelt is unanimously elected chair, a position she will hold until work is completed on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

September-December 1946.  Discussions continue begin at the UN quarters now in Lake Success, New York. The Human Rights Commission decided that there would be three parts to the International Bill of Human Rights. First, a declaration to be adopted as a resolution by the General Assembly “to name and define all the human rights, not only the traditionally recognized political and civil rights, but also the more recently recognized social, economic, and cultural rights.”  After the Declaration, a Covenant “would take the form of a treaty and would be legally binding on the countries that accepted them.” And finally, a system to implement or enforce these rights. The Commission began its work with the Declaration and soon assigned the preparation of a draft to a sub-committee of 8, the Drafting Committee on an International Bill of Rights, chaired by Mrs. Roosevelt. Her goal was “to find words that everyone would accept.”  Eleanor also attends numerous meetings of Committee Three as it tackles a range of issues, including women’s rights, refugees, and freedom of information and the press.

At the Second Session of the General Assembly in October, held in Flushing, at the former New York City building of the 1939 World’s Fair, an attempt was made to take up a human rights bill that had been drafted for the San Francisco meeting.  Eleanor successfully argued that it should be sent to the Commission on Human Rights to be considered as part of their drafting process. As one observer noted, over the next few years the ensuing publicity and debates about human rights “helped to educate both governments and world opinion” and resulted in a much better document.

Eleanor Roosevelt: Creating Human Rights, 1947

January-February 1947. The first session of the 8-member Human Rights Commission sub-committee to draft a Declaration meets in late January at Lake Success. It was soon clear that such a group was too large to write a document from scratch. Drafting work was delegated to a sub-committee of Mrs. Roosevelt, Vice Chair P.C. Chang, and Rapporteur Charles Malik, assisted by the UN Secretariat in the person of John Humphrey, Director of the Human Rights Division, which would also consider suggestions from all the delegates. Mrs. Roosevelt invited them to her Washington Square apartment for tea on a Sunday afternoon. They decided to ask Humphrey, who was an expert on international law, to prepare a preliminary draft. Eleanor was getting “an intense education in constitutional law” but believed that her special contribution would be, as she told the readers of her newspaper column, that “I may be able to help them put into words the high thoughts which they can gather from past history and from the actuality of the contem-porary situation, so that the average human being can understand and strive for the objectives set forth.”

Six weeks later Humphrey had a substantial document with 48 articles, many of which would survive to the final iteration, and hundreds of pages of supporting materials which annotated the articles, and included constitutions and previous attempts to systematically describe human rights prepared during the war. As this work was proceeding, the Human Rights Commission continued to meet to discuss what should be included in a “bill of human rights,” concerned about language, concepts such as the relationship of the individual to the state, and implementa-tion. Eleanor reports on these debates almost day-by-day in to her column, always drawing larger lessons. Here is one example:

The representative from the United Kingdom is very much troubled by the fact that, while you can write a bill of human rights, it will mean nothing to various parts of the world where people are still in a state which will not allow them to enjoy many of these rights. It is quite obvious that the people of Borneo do not have exactly the same conception of rights and freedoms as do the people of New York City or London. Therefore, we will have to bear in mind that we are writing a bill of rights for the world, and that one of the most important rights is the opportunity for development. As people grasp that opportunity, they can also demand new rights if these are broadly defined.

1947 May-June, December.  Eleanor looked forward to the start of Human Rights Commission meetings in late May, but was a bit concerned about how the sessions would proceed:

Now that we are finished discussing principles and are down to actual wording, every word and every shade of meaning has to be weighed with a view to expressing the same thought in five different languages, and to having the legal phraseology meet the requirements of all the legal systems represented around the table. What will happen when, instead of eight representatives, we have 18 is something I cannot even imagine, and I look forward to the next few weeks with considerable anxiety. On Monday the full Human Rights Commission meets at Lake Success, and then there will be serious arguments!

At Lake Success, the Human Rights Commission painstakingly went through the revised draft.  Eleanor told the group, “I hope we will err on the side of including perhaps too many rights in the draft we present to the Human Rights Commission. I think they have a right to cut down and exclude, but we should be very careful to include as much as possible in the initial bill that we draft.”

In December 1947, the Human Rights Commission met in Geneva, at the Palais des Nations Unies.  In order to finish their work on time, carefully reaching consensus on each article, Eleanor enforced a schedule with meetings in the morning, afternoon, and evening, even using her lunch hour to chat informally.  And after the commission finished its day, she would return to her hotel and write her newspaper column. The work was completed on December 17 at 11:00pm. The ensuing draft would be sent for comments to other UN divisions, member governments, and many interested non-governmental parties around the world. Mrs. Roosevelt was able to return home in time for Christmas with her family.

Key People Preparing the Declaration

In addition to several advisors from the State Department who accompanied Eleanor Roosevelt to meetings to provide information and documents when needed, there were three key people working closely with her. The Human Rights Commis-sion delegated to this group, including Mrs. Roosevelt, the task of preparing an initial draft of a human rights document for discussion.

C. (Peng Chun) Chang, China, Vice-Chair of the Commission. With degrees from Clark University (BA) and Columbia (PhD), Chang taught philosophy at Nankai University in China until he fled after the Japanese invasion. Later he represented China at the UN. He believed that Confucius and other Chinese thinkers had influenced the French 18th century philosophes. He referred frequently to this heritage, especially regarding definitions of such concepts as conscience, brotherhood, rights, and community, and was also helpful in resolving conflicting viewpoints during discussions at the Commission.

Charles H. Malik, Lebanon, Rapporteur of the Commission.

Charles H. Malik, Lebanon, Rapporteur of the Commission. After receiving a PhD from Harvard, he taught philosophy at the American University of Beirut before becoming a diplomat. In 1945 he was Lebanon’s chief delegate to the UN Conference in San Francisco and signed the charter on behalf of his nation. He served as Lebanese delegate to the UN (1945-55, 1957-58), and was elected president of the General Assembly in its 13th session (1958-59). He chaired the Economic and Social Council in 1948 while it was debating the draft Declaration, and Committee Three during its 81 meetings to discuss the draft before it was sent to the General Assembly. Eleanor paid tribute to his work when she wrote about the role of rapporteur:

… I have always felt that the rapporteur of any committee has perhaps the most important role to fill. He writes the report of the work of his committee and he can slant it by the mere change of just a few words to make some action taken seem either good or irresponsible. This power to be objective and to report exactly everything of importance that has occurred during a committee session and to give exact weight which various expressions of opinion deserves makes all the difference in the world between an accurate report and one that presents the point of view of the individual.

John Peters Humphrey, Canada, Secretariat. Having overcome a difficult childhood when he was orphaned and had his left arm amputated, Humphrey studied law in Montreal and Paris, practiced for several years, and then taught international law at McGill University for a decade. This expertise led to his appointment as Director of the United Nations Human Rights Division in August 1946; in that position he provided important ongoing support to the Human Rights Commission.

Early in 1947, at a meeting in Eleanor Roosevelt’s apartment on Washington Square, Mrs. Roosevelt, Chang, and Malik asked John Humphrey to prepare a draft that would be the basis for discussion.  Six weeks later he had a document that clearly foreshadowed the final declaration. He had also prepared three other documents with background materials and commentary comprising several hundred pages.

It would take another forty years for Humphrey’s important contribution to be formally recognized.  Emil Cassin, an erudite lawyer and the French representative to the Human Rights Commission commented on the Humphrey draft and was later credited with as its author.  Cassin was a severely wounded veteran of World War I who helped lead the French Resistance in World War II, represented France at the League of Nations (1924-1938), and then became an advocate for the UN. He helped found UNESCO and was later president of the European Court of Human Rights. France promoted his extensive work on human rights and the Universal Declaration and he was deservedly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968. In fact, former president Truman had nominated Eleanor Roosevelt for the prize in 1964 but the rule against awarding it to anyone who had died prevented that. However, it did go that year to UNESCO, a choice that would have pleased Mrs. Roosevelt immensely because she advocated for all the programs to assist children from the very first months of the United Nations.

Years later research determined that Cassin had only commented lightly on the draft written by John Humphrey. Once Humphrey’s primary role in drafting the Declaration was revealed, he received the United Nations Prize for Human Rights Advocacy in 1988. In the years following his two decades at the UN, Humphrey had continued to investigate human rights abuses. He believed, like Eleanor Roosevelt, that “There is a fundamental link between human rights and peace. There will be peace on earth when the rights of all are respected.”

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Leadership Style

She had an intuitive understanding of others and was at her best in a personal relationship, her candor, sense of humor and quick intelligence never failing her. Simplicity and the knack of giving other people confidence often go with greatness. Mrs. Roosevelt had both.

 John P. Humphrey

Eleanor Roosevelt liked to meet with people informally, over meals or for tea, and when in New York invited people to Hyde Park for picnics. She believed that such social occasions made it possible to get to know one another on a human level, and then use those ties to make progress in the committee meetings.  From the first session in London and in the years after, she brought together women delegates and advisors at the United Nations, at a time when there were not very many, and constantly encouraged the appointment of more women to the delegations. She even socialized with representatives of the Soviet Union, at a time when other American delegates would not be seen with them because of the Communist witch-hunt then underway in the House of Representatives (House Un-American Activities Committee).  Eleanor Roosevelt condemned those hearings frequently in her columns years before others spoke up, fearless in the face of any consequences, while at the same time skillfully debating the Soviets at the U.N. in her committee and in the General Assembly.  While she generally did not publically disagree with American positions, she occasionally took “a position somewhat different from the official viewpoint.”

All those years of committee work with the Democratic Party and various civic groups had made Eleanor a skilled manager with a firm hand. She liked to start her meetings at the appointed time, stay on schedule, and urge her fellow committee members to put in extra hours when there were deadlines. After all, during her work as chair of the Human Rights Commission, she also had obligations as an American delegate to attend the General Assembly and to continue work with Committee Three. Those combined responsibilities, she reported “kept me on United Nations work during five or six months of the year. I always tried to be punctual…and I had to keep my daily schedule on a crowded timetable basis with no minutes to spare.”  In addition to her official duties, she was a great publicist for the U.N. and human rights, frequently speaking to groups and on the radio.

Patience too, was important. The give and take, however much time was involved, was critical as she wrote, “The discussions and the compromises and the disagreements that occur in committee meetings are of the utmost importance.”  Curtis Roosevelt, her grandson, who accompanied her to Paris in the fall of 1948 recalled, “[what was] really the secret of her success – [was] her capacity to do work through a committee …with people of diverse views who were not of her opinion.”  But he also noted that “She was known as a little bit of a slave driver because, particularly the Latin American delegates, did not like to come on time.  ‘Who comes on time to anything?’  So they would wander in and find the meeting already in session and moving on. She was quite rigorous and vigorous in her application of her chairmanship.”  He also recorded her handling of the Soviet representatives and their allies, “They were blocking to this extent: that a new delegate would arrive on her committee and say that his government wanted everything reviewed from the very beginning, in other words go back and start over again.  She beat them down in every one of these instances and had the support of the committee. But it was difficult.”

Her toughness also came to the fore when the Universal Declaration was heading towards a final vote in the U.N. General Assembly.  Various countries had objections to the one clause or another; even members of the United States delegation were not comfortable with all of the clauses because of domestic politics around states’ rights.  Yet her superb skills, and the allies she had cultivated during her three years of work, made it possible to negotiate abstentions rather than no votes, and to secure the final approval.  Her cultivation of good relations with all delegates allowed the passage of the Declaration by a vote of 48 in favor and 8 abstentions.

This final victory could be attributed to who she was, as Curtis Roosevelt observed:  “She had this kind of personal reputation… it was a reputation for integrity, for fairness, for being quite opinionated – she was very open about the way she thought about things – but it was the sense of her integrity and the sense of fairness that prevailed.” 

Part Three

1948-1951, Palais de Chaillot, Paris.

Built for the 1937 World’s Fair (Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques) in Paris on the foundations of a previous monumental complex. From the expansive plaza between its two wings can be seen the Eiffel Tower.  It was at the Palais that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948.  The stairs leading up to the plaza memorializes that event, known as the esplanade des droits de l’homme(“esplanade of human rights”). Today the Palais houses three museums and a national theater.

Eleanor Roosevelt: Creating Human Rights, 1948

May-June 1948. The second session of the drafting committee of the Human Rights Commission met at UN headquarters in Lake Success to review all of the comments received and refine the declaration. The slow pace of debate alarmed Mrs. Roosevelt, concerned whether the group would ever finish, “It is becoming more and more evident to all of us that this is an extremely difficult undertaking—this writing of a Declaration on Human Rights. I am wondering whether we are going to find the Convention any easier or whether our difficulties will increase.”

After the weeks of intense discussion, a complete draft was adopted by the Commission by a vote of 12-4 on June 18, 1948. This version was forwarded to Committee Three, the Economic and Social Council, along with a draft covenant and a report on implementation.

I was certainly glad to reach the end. Six weeks of arguing over the weight of each word put down, as well as the legal meaning of every phrase, is not so easy for me, who am somewhat impatient of the things which I do not recognize at first blush as being really important. I have had to learn a great deal in this last session and it has been good discipline, and I am sure my lawyer friends will be pleased to know that I have come to hold a proper respect for their legalistic turn of mind.

September-December 1948. The meetings were in Paris at the Palais de Chaillot. Early in the session Mrs. Roosevelt was invited to speak at the Sorbonne, which she found in her usual modest way “altogether too great an honor for a woman who never even had earned a degree after four years’ work in college.” She made the address in fluent French – a language she learned in early childhood — using the forum to speak again on behalf of human rights, announcing firmly that “The field of human rights is not one in which compromise on fundamental principles are possible” and continuing:

Concern for the preservation and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms stands at the heart of the United Nations. Its Charter is distinguished by its preoccupation with the rights and welfare of individual men and women. I have come this evening to talk with you on one of the greatest issues of our time — that is the preservation of human freedom. I have chosen to discuss it here in France, at the Sorbonne, because here in this soil the roots of human freedom have long ago struck deep and here they have been richly nourished. It was here the Declaration of the Rights of Man was proclaimed, and the great slogans of the French Revolution — liberty, equality, fraternity — fired the imagination of men. I have chosen to discuss this issue in Europe because this has been the scene of the greatest historic battles between freedom and tyranny. I have chosen to discuss it in the early days of the General Assembly because the issue of human liberty is decisive for the settlement of outstanding political differences and for the future of the United Nations.

Committee Three created a sub-committee to review the draft of the Declaration; it decided to put aside the covenant at the urging of Mrs. Roosevelt who felt that the Human Rights Commission could work on it at its next sessions in 1949. Weeks of debate, starting at the end of September, followed with dozens of meetings. John Humphrey recalled that “Every one of the thirty articles of the Declaration was discussed in great detail and most of the meetings were full of interest and drama.”   Almost all the member nations of the UN had something to say during these debates.  Among the most intensely debated clauses were those that had to do with right of political self-determina-tion, the meaning of dignity and rights, references to a deity, forced labor, freedoms of assembly and association, and even the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Some of the arguments broke along the lines of Western democracy vs. communism; others had roots in different religious, cultural, and historical traditions. Eleanor of course, as a delegate to Committee Three, was deeply engaged with the discussions and initially thought the Declaration would move quickly through its hearings. Instead, “My confidence was soon gone. We worked for two months, often until late at night, debating every single word of that draft declaration over and over again before Committee Three would approve its transmission to the General Assembly.”

From October through December 4, Mrs. Roosevelt’s My Day columns reported in great deal about the debates on each article in Committee Three and then the Economic and Social Council. On November 11, 1948, she wrote: We actually got a vote yesterday on Article 14 of the Declaration of Human Rights—which stresses equality of men and women in marriage without limitation due to nationality and religion. After arguing two and a half hours, the article was passed without major change, though differences on the procedural questions seemed endless. I hope when I go home, I can devote myself to action rather than conversation.” On November 12, 1948, she reported: “Yesterday, Article 16, one of the most important articles in the Declaration of Human Rights, was passed exactly as presented. It reads: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom either alone or in community with others and in public and private to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.’” And finally, shortly before the General Assembly was to take up the declaration, she reports on the concluding efforts,

Before we left our meeting room at 6:45 last night, our chairman in Committee No. 3 told us that when we returned for the evening session to come prepared to stay until the work on the Declaration of Human Rights was finished. Our job was to arrange the articles in their proper sequence. We were warned the task would run far into the morning…. However, we did finish our work and, we hope, in time for the General Assembly to consider it and pass it at this session. Even though the declaration is not exactly as the United States delegation would have written it, it nevertheless is the result of 58 countries’ work done together over a long period of time, and it represents real and sincere effort and devotion on the part of the members of Committee No. 3 and its chairman, Dr. Charles Malik of Lebanon.

Although the Soviet Union asked the Committee to recommend to the General Assembly that they put off a vote until the next year so there could additional amendments, this was rejected, as Mrs. Roosevelt noted: “No one was deceived and no one wanted to put off the day when this declaration would be a part of the world’s consciousness.”

On December 6, 1948, at 1:00am, Committee Three voted to adopt its draft and send it to the General Assembly. The final document had a Preamble and 30 articles.  The first two articles laid out the basic definition of human dignity and the entitlement to human rights. Political and civil rights were enumerated in Articles 3-21, economic, social and cultural rights in Articles 22-27, and the international recognition and protection of such rights in Articles 28-30.

On December 10, in the final vote in the General Assembly, 48 nations gave their approval, with eight abstentions (six Communist countries, and Saudi Arabia and South Africa). The President of the General Assembly declared the adoption of the Declaration and called for the delegates to “recognize the role of one person here among us who really is responsible for this feat. I would like to recognize Eleanor Roosevelt.” The delegates stood and applauded.

Eleanor later considered work on the Human Rights Commission as “her most important task” during her six years at the United Nations. She worked on it constantly, and put i long hours writing, mediating among competing political philoso-phies, and debating the finer points of the Declaration’s passages.  She was aided by an international group of experts but her leadership, and ability to focus on the main points and adroitly shape them, brought this document to completion.

Mrs. Roosevelt Presents The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights

On December 9, 1948, in Paris, Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at length before the General Assembly, presenting the final version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as approved by the Economic and Social Council.  She opened with a general statement about its evolution and the support of the United States for its adoption:

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, and it would still be true if we continued our labors over many years. 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.

After this elegant introduction, she took the time to talk about various amendments that the Soviet Union had put forth many times –which had been rejected in each forum.  She diplomatically suggests that it’s time to understand that the majority has prevailed:

We in the United States admire those who fight for their convictions, and the Soviet delegation has fought for their convictions. But in the older democracies we have learned that sometimes we bow to the will of the majority. In doing that, we do not give up our convictions. We continue sometimes to persuade, and eventually we may be successful. But we know that we have to work together and we have to progress. So, we believe that when we have made a good fight, and the majority is against us, it is perhaps better tactics to try to cooperate.

And finally, she entreats the delegates to consider the status of the Declaration under international law, its place in the history of government, its origins in the horrors of the recent war, and the achievement of so many nations coming together to “to lift men everywhere to a higher standard of life and to a greater enjoyment of freedom.”

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.

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 Universal Declaration of Human Rights 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 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 flagrant 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.

We have much to do to fully achieve and to assure the rights set forth in this Declaration… 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.

The vote by the General Assembly early on December 10, 1948 adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was followed by a standing ovation for Eleanor Roosevelt. Her brilliant leadership of a complex and demanding assignment had brought forth a document that was truly revolutionary.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Adopted by the UN General Assembly, December 10, 1948


Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

Article 6.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7.

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8.

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10.
Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11.
(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.
(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12.
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14.
(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15.
(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16.
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17.
(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21.
(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22.
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23.
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24.
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26.
(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27.
(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28.
Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29.
(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30.
Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

Eleanor Roosevelt, Champion of  the United Nations and Human Rights

Amidst her myriad responsibilities, Eleanor Roosevelt finds time – frequently at the end of a long day of meetings – to write her six-day-a-week column, My Day, which was syndicated in almost 100 leading newspapers throughout the United States. In article after article, she takes the opportunity to report to this vast audience about her work at the UN, about the debates in the General Assembly, the work of the Security Council, and in the Human Rights Commission where she presided over the writing of the Declaration.  A devoted advocate for the United Nations, she wants to inspire the same support from the American people so she uses her column, in the shadow of her uncle, former President Teddy Roosevelt, as a bully pulpit to educate them about its importance for world peace and for the unprecedented recognition of human rights.  From 1945 to 1948, with the backdrop of the Cold War, the development of atomic power, the continuing refugee crisis in Europe, the Berlin Airlift, and turmoil in the Middle East, Eleanor Roosevelt aligns the UN and human rights with democratic values.  In addition to her column, she also reaches a broad audience on the radio in the United States and via the Voice of America in Europe, and with speaking engagements around the country. For Eleanor, it is one of the responsibilities of all delegates to “to awaken the people of various countries to a greater interest in and clearer perception of what the United Nations Organization may become and how, in time, it may affect our daily lives.”

Even while she was traveling to London for the first meeting of the United Nations, her entire column of January 5, 1946 – and many more that will follow – is devoted to explaining the importance of the UN:

I have been thinking of the grave responsibility which lies not only on the delegates to the United Nations Organization but on the nation as a whole as we gather for our first meeting of the UNO Assembly. On the success or failure of the United Nations Organization may depend the preservation and continuance of our civilization. We have learned how to destroy ourselves. Mankind can be wiped off the face of the earth by the action of any comparatively small group of people. So it would seem that if we care to survive we must progress in our social and economic development far more rapidly than we have done in the past…. If we hope to prosper, others must prosper too, and if we hope to be trusted, we must trust others… The building of a United Nations Organization is the way that lies before us today. Nothing else except security for all the peoples of the world will bring freedom from fear of destruction …. Security requires both control of the use of force and the elimination of want. No people are secure unless they have the things needed not only to preserve existence, but to make life worth living. These needs may differ widely now. They may change for all, from time to time. But all peoples throughout the world must know that there is an organization where their interests can be considered and where justice and security will be sought for all.

Once in London, she continued to provide detailed accounts of the meetings, personalities, and debates, as well as the excite-ment of witnessing a new enterprise begin and the hopes for its success for the future of the world. Among the recurring themes that surface early is her desire for more women to serve as delegates and experts. She also conveys her respect for the delegates:

Every one of these delegates will play a part on the committees to which they will be assigned…. It will not matter whether you come from a big or little nation, if you have a contribution to make to the questions that are brought before your committee. It will be your own ability to think clearly and speak tactfully, and persuasively that will enable each one to render valuable service.

By the time the London session was ending, she was optimistic about what had been accomplished: the organization had been brought to life as planned in its Charter, including the critical role of the Security Council; the bipartisan American delegation would bring back a positive message to the United States and strengthen support for the UN; and the UN had started work on difficult issues through various bodies. In her view, it had surpassed the League of Nations in its potential and initial activities. “From the very beginning,” she wrote, “I never for a minute thought of the possibility of failure.”  Citing the influence of her late husband President Roosevelt, “he always had complete confidence that someone would find the answer. No one can expect always to deal correctly with every question, but a confident approach gives one a better chance of success.”

Six years later Mrs. Roosevelt’s term ended with her pro forma resignation as President Eisenhower was about to take office. President Truman wrote to her:

Your letter of resignation as a Delegate to the General Assembly of the United Nations has been received, and I regret that I must accept it, effective January 20, 1953. I cannot leave the White House without thanking you for your unfaltering service to our country and your very real help to me. Since that evening in 1945 when you responded to my offer of assistance with, “What can we do for you?”, you have done many things for me. In your work on the Human Rights Commission, you brought honor to all of us. Your poise and patience and good will have been valuable in sessions of the United Nations General Assembly as well. The reports you have brought to me have been stimulating and useful.You have been a good ambassador for America.

Mrs. Roosevelt remained a staunch supporter of the United Nations.  She was a member of the American Association for the United Nations, and continued to write and speak in America and abroad about the role of the UN until the end of her life.

Eleanor Roosevelt, My Day, December 22, 1948 

HYDE PARK, Tuesday—There have been a number of questions showered upon me since I got back from Paris. In fact, while I was away one of the newspapers publishing my column wrote that it seemed rather dull to be told day by day just how each article of the universal Declaration of Human Rights was being written and didn’t I meet some interesting people or do something more entertaining that I could write about.

As a matter of fact, I purposely described the writing of that Declaration in that way so that people at home might have some idea of the difficulties surrounding the writing of any document which has to mean the same thing in five official languages and, if possible, not really interfere with any of the customs and habits or legal peculiarities prevalent in any of the 53 nations belonging to the United Nations. Judging by the blithe way in which certain groups in our country suggest that we might get together quickly and easily on a world government and accept a rule of law for the whole world, I think some people must have an idea that these legal arrangements are more easily arrived at than is actually the case.

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Also, I have been asked to explain why the U.S.S.R., which evidently took a considerable interest in this document, finally abstained when it came up for consideration in the General Assembly.

To give you a little picture of what went on, I should begin by saying that in the first Commission on Human Rights the Russians gave no instructions to their representative. He was on hand only as an observer, but he was a very able lawyer and, without question, observed well. He was followed by other able government representatives and each one in turn took a little more active interest. Sometimes the Soviet delegate even voted for or against certain articles.

Up to a short time ago the Russians always said when they abstained in the final vote on the whole document that it was not complete and their government could not be committed to anything that was not in final form.

At this past session of the General Assembly they had to face a final form, and so they tried to put off this decision for a year at least, on the grounds that the Declaration could be improved. When that did not seem sufficient reason to the rest of the nations for delaying the vote, the U.S.S.R. remarked that since the amendments recommended by them had not been accepted the document was too weak to satisfy a progressive democracy such as Russia is and they could not accept it.

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Another question asked is: “Why should a document that admittedly has no power to coerce people in the world have any value at all?”

The answer to that is that most of the great declarations were at first merely statements of principle. To be sure, they were national documents and the peoples of the nations concerned agreed to strive to accept those principles and make them realities.

In the present case it is a great variety of peoples that have accepted these principles and have agreed to begin the long trek toward making a reality the rights and freedoms of the individual human being.

One should never belittle the value of words, however, for they have a way of getting translated into facts, and therein lies the hope for our universal declaration.


Memorial to Eleanor Roosevelt, Garden at UN Headquarters, New York

Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial, Riverside Park and 72nd Street, New York City

Erected by the Eleanor Roosevelt Foundation and dedicated April 23, 1966. Bench inscription: “1884 – Anna Eleanor Roosevelt – 1962” and a tall slab engraved with a bas-relief flame and quote from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson: “She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness and her glow has warmed the world.”

Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial, Riverside Park and 72nd Street, New York City 

Dedication October 5, 1996 attended by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Statue by sculptor Penelope Jencks, modeled by Phoebe Roosevelt, great-granddaughter of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. Setting designed by Bruce Kelly/David Varnell Landscape Architects. Pavement inscription from a 1958 speech by Mrs. Roosevelt: “Where after all, do universal human rights begin?  In small places, close to home, such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity


Roosevelt House Student Programs

Two undergraduate programs honoring the legacies of the Roosevelts are hosted in their former home. The Roosevelts’ roles in establishing the United Nations, writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and shaping public policy continue to inspire students to follow in their footsteps. With these programs, students are prepared to work for human rights or shape public policy through government service, positions with non-governmental organizations or in any other setting where their commitment will sustain the Roosevelt ideals.

 As a first generation college student and child of immigrants, Roosevelt Households immense importance to me. The first time I ever stepped foot into Roosevelt House, I was in awe: to be standing and learning where the Roosevelts once stood, seemed unreal to me. My parents came to this country for a better life and I am always fortunate for the opportunities I am granted because they made that decision. Learning where the Roosevelts once resided, not only makes me feel like a part of a powerful history but as someone who can help bring change as well. I do want to devote my life to fighting for human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not law and there are flaws within the system, but Roosevelt House has taught me how important it is to continue fighting for human rights in any way shape or form that I can.

Kelly Cruz, Human Rights Minor, Class of 2020

Roosevelt House for me is the educational and professional platform that allowed me to be an agent of advocacy and social change. I had the privilege to learn from Human Rights and Public Policy practitioners the insights of how government agencies and NGOs work to confront social, economic and political challenges.

The Human Rights Program provided the opportunity to go out to the field, on a required internship, to learn and assist with the day to day operations of an organization that provides services and advocacy for individuals with justice involvement. The Public Policy Capstone class expanded my knowledge of housing policy in NYC and its complexities. With the expert guidance of passionate academics, I learned advanced research skills that helped me obtain my current employment, assisting the city’s most vulnerable secure affordable housing. Roosevelt House has followed Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy of championing for the most basic human rights and social justice, by empowering individuals like me to follow this commitment.

Juan Diaz, Human Rights Minor/ Public Policy Certificate, Class of 2018