Disunited Nations


In 1947 a remarkable United Nations committee, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, convened in Paris to draft a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first document of its kind in history. The task was not a simple one. Delegates from the four corners of the earth would have to agree on basic principles limiting how states could behave not only toward one another but also within their borders. Not surprisingly, the first sessions were contentious. The committee included Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, atheists, and agnostics; communists, socialists, liberals, and fascists; Western and Eastern nations; colonial powers and recently decolonized nations—all there to concur on a guiding set of ideals that would protect human dignity without compromising cultural differences.

UN’s Declaration of Human Rights would prove largely symbolic.

Eleanor Roosevelt proved equal to the task. Armed with a kind and unassuming demeanor but also with a razor-sharp intellect and diplomatic skills that surprised even the greatest skeptics, she devoted months of study to the intricacies of international law and single-mindedly forged a compromise among the committee’s competing factions. For instance, she helped strike a critical balance between AngloAmerican notions of liberty, which exalted the individual, and Continental ones, which stressed a state’s obligation to ensure the economic and social well-being of its citizens.

Her efforts found reinforcement in the work of an extraordinary panel of philosophers gathered by the UN’s Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Under the capable direction of the Cambridge University historian E. H. Carr, the Committee on the Theoretical Bases of Human Rights asked a group that included Aldous Huxley, Mohandas Gandhi, the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Confucian philosopher Chung-shu Lo, and the Bengali Muslim poet Humayin Kabir if it was possible to identify values that cut across all national, ethnic, religious, and regional boundaries. Much to the surprise of many, and to the delight of Eleanor Roosevelt, their answer was an emphatic yes.

“Varied in cultures and built upon different institutions, the members of the United Nations have, nevertheless, certain great principles in common,” the committee reported. It went on to identify specific values that were shared across cultures and continents. Mary Ann Glendon, a scholar of human-rights law, sums them up as “the right to live; the right to protection of health; the right to work; the right to social assistance in cases of need; the right to property; the right to education; the right to information; the right to freedom of thought and inquiry; the right to self-expression; the right to fair procedures; the right to political participation; the right to freedom of speech, assembly, association, worship, and the press; the right to citizenship; the right to rebel against an unjust regime; and the right to share in progress.”

These broad ideals ultimately guided Eleanor Roosevelt’s committee in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a nonbinding statement of principle that the participants in the conference ratified in 1948. One delegate wrote that the formal UN debate, held at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, was marked by a “great solemnity, full of emotion.…I perceived that I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing.”

Balancing a state’s rights with an individual’s often can’t be done.

After the 34 delegates had exhausted every possible angle of debate, the General Assembly voted to approve all 30 articles of the declaration, 23 of them unanimously. When the complete document came up for a final ballot, no nation voted against it. Only 8 abstained: Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, and their patron, the U.S.S.R.; Saudi Arabia; and South Africa.

However, its passage was largely symbolic. The problem was, and is, that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an assortment of non-binding principles that are fundamentally at odds with the binding rules governing the United Nations. Then, as now, in the perpetual tug of war between state sovereignty and human rights, state sovereignty almost always wins. Article 2 of the UN Charter is very clear on this point: The United Nations “is based on the sovereign equality of all of its members.” Which means that a brutal dictator has as much right to be there as the delegate from a democratically elected government that respects the Universal Declaration. Moreover, it has to be that way. Sovereign states are what the UN consists of.