“Nobody really does anything alone. It is only by including others that change happens and work gets done.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
It was a woman diplomat who led to produce the most important declaration that would bind people to peace and equality – Eleanor Roosevelt. On December 10, 1948, members of the UN General Assembly did a standing ovation for 64-year-old former US First Lady and widow of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The UN Declaration of Human Rights is considered to be Roosevelt’s lasting legacy. She held a highly volatile committee together at the time when the world had just been reeling from WWII.
Biographer Allida Black wrote that Eleanor Roosevelt (ER) gained respect at the UN when she made an “unscripted response” to the eloquent Russian diplomat Andrei Vyshinsky during a tension-filled meeting of the UN. No one was eager to respond to Vyshinsky. ER’s co-delegate, John Foster Dulles, asked her to do the response on behalf of the US. She asked for 4 minutes to prepare and then went up to stage for her extemporaneous speech.
That speech opened the minds of the diplomats of her capacity as a UN diplomat wherein she was previously seen as ill-prepared, mushy, and an uneducated widow. In June 1947, she was appointed to the committee which drafted the Declaration of Human Rights.
ER’s style of work was that she spent time talking to everyone, not just the high level ministers and secretaries, but more importantly, the staff secretaries and every staff member of the ministerial staff. She included everyone in her work to be able to listen to their voices and sentiments.
There was a recorded 85 working sessions in 60 days in the drafting of the declaration. These meetings were fierce, politically and emotionally, and began early, at 6:30AM and would finish at about 2-3PM. ER had to listen to philosophical disputes on Thomas Aquinas versus Confucius. Her self-study on world religions was put to use. She also conducted countless individual meetings to hear everyone out. She was an active listener as a negotiator.
There were a total of 170 amendments to the draft declaration. These changes were acknowledged and the entire committee was held by ER through patience and as then Sec. of State Hillary Clinton said – through “persuasive power, diplomatic skills, and dogged persistence.”
According to UN Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour, ER was a “quintessential multilateralist” who looked beyond her national interest, making a case that human rights were common to all countries, “at the time when the world was still very polarized.”
During the negotiations, Roosevelt and USSR delegates exchanged exhaustively on civil rights abuses. The Soviet delegates criticized the US on how it treated black slaves. Roosevelt, as an overseer, offered to dispatch a team of UN investigators to the US southern states and to the Soviet Union as well, if the USSR delegates agreed. The USSR declined.
Criticized that the draft was an expression of Western imperialism, ER and the commission sought the contributions from a wide range of cultures and beliefs – such as from China, Canada, and Lebanon.
In September 1948, a fragile consensus was reached on the draft declaration before the Economic and Social Council in Paris. ER delivered her own speech in presenting the declaration in French, honoring the French and American revolutions, accounting for the four freedoms espoused by her late husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and looking at the bitter lessons of dictatorships such as Hitler’s.
Right on the very process of writing the Declaration, ER had to deal with dissenting opinions on human rights by men. Foremost of which was with USSR diplomat Vysinky who did not believe in human rights. ER did not argue with Vyshinsky but instead offered a “different point of view, a broader outlook, that what makes man more free are man, not governments.”
ER, as a diplomat and negotiator, listened to everyone but did not veer from her own principle and experience of human rights and expand it in the global arena.
Finally after three years, on December 10, 1948, the UDHR was signed by 58 member states, a document which embraced the different cultures and wove a unifying principle (as ER stressed, not a treaty or legal obligation) that human rights is a birthright, regardless of gender, race, religion, and nationality.
The UDHR contained a preamble and 30 articles (with over 500 translations) that guided the world against the occurrence of another world war. It took a woman negotiator to hold the drafting committee together.
ER’s tactical skill in managing political personalities was developed when she was First Lady in New York and then in the US with her husband’s long political career as governor of NY and as US President.
She was known to have helped avoid intra-party squabbles between her husband’s adviser Louis Howe and campaign manager Jim Farley. She had at one time advised FDR to invite both Republicans and Democrats to a mayor’s conference in New York, which fortified FDR’s political power.
As the “eyes and ears” of the president, ER did not limit herself listening to high ranking officials of institutions and agencies. She would see for herself “kitchens, garages, food services, plumbing, and electricity.” This work ethic had been noticeable and worked effectively as a diplomat at the UN.
Although born to an elite family, ER’s education was mainly on boarding school for girls in Allenwood Academy, outside London.The headmistress, French lady Marie Souvestre, made a great impact on her young life where she developed the love of reading, languages, and traveling.
To me, her evolution to becoming a substantial global icon was her direct connection with the American people and from people all over the world. She used her power and position well in order to effect transformative change. Her ability to listen and play fair has certainly tempered her to be a balanced diplomat and grounded negotiator. She was a centered person whose core values on fairness and human rights and as a birthright of all persons made her a steadfast negotiator and world leader.
On the 10th anniversary of the UDHR in 1957, she spoke about a guide for community action at the UN – “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works.
Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
ER has evolved from a shy person, believing that she was far from the stereotypical beautiful woman even within her family, into a woman larger than her own life, because of her compassion, sense of urgency, and candor. #
(This article was originally my essay for a peace and diplomacy class at the UTS. Photos from Google.)