Since its adoption by the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has often served as an inspiration and as a standard for judging the extent to which the governments of the world have upheld the rights, liberties, and fundamental needs of their citizens. Students of international relations disagree about how effective the instrument has been. Critics, on one hand, can point to countless violations of its provisions, and they ask whether it is really helpful to say that governments should not do the terrible things that they, in fact, continue to do. Supporters of the document, however, contend that the UDHR has gradually had an impact on public expectations, and that, in any case, the option of an enforcement mechanism was an impossible dream in the period just after World War II.
Professor Mary Ann Glendon has written a fascinating and important story about the small group of persons who had primary responsibility for writing and winning the adoption of the UDHR. Her book A World Made New should become the definitive work on the topic. Glendon has a wonderful ability to describe individual personalities, their ideas, and their actions. In addition to revealing previously unknown details, she has demonstrated a keen eye for interesting and revealing anecdotes. Examples include the occasional pettiness of outstanding diplomats and Mrs. Roosevelt’s almost complete indifference to food. While explaining the origins of the UDHR, Glendon also provides insight into other important things that were happening at the time, including the beginning of the Cold War and the creation of the new state of Israel.
Although she clearly admires Eleanor Roosevelt and believes that the UDHR was a good thing, she maintains a centrist point of view and avoids excessive polemics. To the left-wing critics who charge that the UDHR defends only Western and capitalistic values, she points out that non-Western diplomats were actively involved in its formation, and that non-Western countries have sometimes been among its most outspoken proponents. To right-wing critics who assert that the document was inspired by communist ideology, she emphasizes that the Soviet Union and other Eastern-bloc countries abstained in the final voting on the document. Some American conservatives, nevertheless, will take notice of Glendon’s observation that the Anglo-American individualistic tradition had less influence on the final document than did the “dignitarian rights tradition” of continental Europe and Latin America, which generally envisioned rights within the context of the family and citizens’ duties.
A World Made New is based upon a prodigious amount of research in both published and unpublished sources. Almost fifty pages of documentary notes reveal that Glendon utilized the diaries, letters, interviews, and memoirs of the participants, including her exclusive access to the papers of Lebanese philosopher Charles Malik. She made abundant use of the United Nations archives, including verbatim transcripts of the meetings of Roosevelt’s committee. Glendon was also able to find a great deal of interesting information in the archives of the Soviet Politburo that were becoming declassified at about the same time that she was doing her research. Finally, she obtained considerable help from the large number of secondary works, such as the numerous books by Joseph Lash on Eleanor Roosevelt and John Humphrey’s earlier history of the UDHR and its influence.
Glendon begins the story with the creation of the United Nations toward the end of World War II. Although Franklin Roosevelt had favored a general reference to human rights in the Dumbarton Oaks meeting, his emphasis was on trying to prevent the international aggression of countries. At the end of the war, the United States and several countries modified their policies with the revelations of the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities. In its final form, as completed in the San Francisco Conference on June 26, 1945, the United Nations Charter reaffirmed the important of human rights, the dignity of the individual person, and the concept of equality in three separate places, but the Charter did not provide any additional guidance about the nature of the rights and liberties that were to be protected, and one of the key clauses of the Charter stipulated that the United Nations would not intervene “in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State.” President Harry S. Truman nevertheless said that he looked forward to the framing of an “International Bill of Rights.”
Shortly after the San Francisco Conference, President Truman appointed Eleanor...
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