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'Mrs R' and the human rights scripture

A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
by Mary Ann Glendon

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Legal scholars have lionized the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as the symbol, the representation, the pinnacle and the scripture of the modern human rights movement. A humongous amount of literature has been produced in the past 54 years on the provisions, the debates and the significance of the UDHR in international law, but the story of its genesis is usually mentioned only in passing. Reticence on the historical creation of the UDHR owes partly to unavailability of archival material from the Eastern Bloc countries, and partly through the inability of lawyers to escape the technical minutiae of clauses and articles and write an account of the fascinating diplomacy that accompanied its unveiling in 1947-48.

Mary Ann Glendon, in spite of being a professor of law, has filled the lacuna by writing a pulsating account with minimum legalese, an effort putting professional historians to shame. She researched personal correspondences of all major actors who had a hand in the UDHR and also vetted sealed Soviet-era records containing governmental positions and strategies in the diplomatic roulette played out at the United Nations. The capacity to bring alive characters of another age with vivid flourish is rare in the legal profession, but Glendon has succeeded beyond reproach in narrating the journey of an extraordinary group of men and women who rose to the challenge of a unique historical moment.

In 1943, US president Franklin D Roosevelt declared his vision of a post-war peace saying, "The doctrine that the strong will dominate the weak is the doctrine of our enemies - and we reject it." His Wilsonian "four freedoms" concept aimed at amplifying the voices of the weak in the corridors of power laid the intellectual bedrock on which human rights were to be promoted as a major issue in the newly constituted UN. At the Dumbarton Oaks conference (1944), Britain and the USSR rejected American proposals that human rights be listed as one of the UN's main purposes, but allowed the subject to sneak in as a subsidiary concern falling under the rubric of "economic and social questions". The Nuremberg Principles of August 1945 left out the issue of peacetime violations of human dignity, and the UN Charter itself mentioned human rights as belonging to everyone without enumerating or elaborating what the rights were. Glendon terms human rights' fleeting appearance in the UN Charter "a glimmering thread in a web of power and interest". (p.19)

Concerned with keeping the prestige of the Roosevelt name associated with his administration, FDR's successor Harry Truman named Eleanor Roosevelt US representative to the UN. It was a momentous decision, because "Mrs R" was an accomplished feminist, columnist and crusader against racism in her own right and, as it turned out, also a great "people manager". She recommended to the UN a permanent Commission on Human Rights for drafting an "international bill of rights", inter alia because the greatest cause of friction among nations was "lack of standards for human rights".

At the first meeting of the commission at Lake Success in January 1947, debate erupted among 16 member states on how the proposed bill of rights could be implemented. Hansa Mehta of India and Roy Hodgson of Australia favored establishing international forums to hear complaints from victims of abuses, as a bill would be "meaningless without some machinery for enforcement". (p.38) Mrs Roosevelt, the US delegate-cum-chairperson, parried the dilemma by practically suggesting that implementation issues would be time-consuming and should hence be taken up after the bill was completed. Arguments on the antithesis between "individual" and "society" also cropped up, foreshadowing trouble over the formulation of economic and social rights.

A nucleus drafting committee, comprising Mrs Roosevelt, China's P C Chang, Lebanon's Charles Malik and the UN secretariat's John Humphrey, was set up to meet in June 1947 to prepare a preliminary version of the bill. Humphrey's staff studied all the world's existing constitutions and the torrent of suggestions that poured into the UN from member states, private organizations and interested individuals, such as H G Wells and Mahatma Gandhi. It was a "distillation of nearly 200 years of efforts to articulate the most basic human values in terms of rights". (p.57) Rene Cassin, the French delegate, revised Humphrey's draft and gave it internal logic and coherence by introducing a preamble and conclusion, striking a balance between the extremes of capitalist individualism and socialist collectivism.

However, when the draft was submitted to the full commission, the Soviet representative, Koretsky, reported to the Kremlin that the main problem was that the bill "might make it easier to intervene in the internal affairs of sovereign states". (p.71) Implementation disputes broke out in full swing, with proposals from Third World countries to convert the bill into a binding convention or establishing an international tribunal to enforce compliance of the bill, and the great powers shirking from any legal commitment. Unable to break the logjam, Mrs Roosevelt decided to proceed on three lines simultaneously - working on a declaration, a legal covenant and measures of implementation. She herself headed the declaration subcommittee, holding that even a non-binding statement can greatly aid in securing publicity for serious violations.

The implementation subcommittee ran into the doldrums soon, with the USSR railing against "fantastic and dangerous international controls" that infringed on a state's domestic jurisdiction. By the end of 1947, unanimous approval of the declaration in the UN General Assembly looked impossible as many states apprehended its "potential for legitimating outside interference in a country's internal affairs". (p.96) East-West tensions over Berlin, China and Palestine were also beginning to cast an ugly shadow over the commission's progress. Rapporteur Charles Malik was weighed down by urgent responsibilities representing the Arab League in the UN, and Chang withdrew into a shell as Mao Zedong's armies approached Beijing, threatening his Kuomintang government.

Pavlov, the Soviet delegate, made matters worse by proposing that the Geneva draft of late 1947 be scrapped altogether and a fresh one prepared. When the suggestion was voted down, he engaged in skillful filibustering by proposing amendments to almost every article in the draft, often on grounds that "fascist and undemocratic elements" should not enjoy human rights. He complained that the "new" economic and social rights were being relegated to second tier by Western states bent on allowing only their imperialist civil and political rights. As the Cold War revved up, in the guise of rancor at the UN Human Rights Commission, the Americans and Soviets were enacting a face-off between central planning and free market economics. The USSR and its allies abstained from the final vote in the commission (June 1948), though the draft went through to the next stage for consideration by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). At this juncture, the declaration was a "fragile paper boat upon the troubled seas of world politics". (p.121) More drama was to follow.

Fortuitously, Charles Malik was elected president of ECOSOC at the time that the commission's draft declaration was tabled. His diplomatic standing and persuasive skills came in handy against a bunch of hard-nosed politicians in ECOSOC who were not distinguished by their sympathy for human rights. Malik's navigation sailed the draft through without amendments to the next round of scrutiny before the UN General Assembly's Third Committee on Social and Humanitarian Affairs. Given the worsening state of East-West relations and a closing window of opportunity for international agreement, "It was now or never for the declaration." (p.132) US secretary of state George Marshall gave a strong endorsement to the declaration and Mrs Roosevelt also spoke widely inside and outside the UN to get the draft passed.

Third committee members raised myriad objections that would bedevil the declaration in the years to come. Saudi Arabia claimed that articles relating to marriage and religious freedom were based on "Western standards of family relations" and Pavlov added that the document was disrespectful to national sovereignty. Eastern Bloc members lambasted the declaration as hypocritical, meaningless and patently false. Apartheid South Africa questioned the phrasing of Article 1, opining that "dignity" was not a "right". So vexed were smaller countries at major power squabbling and utilization of the third committee for slanging matches that the Mexican delegate protested in vain how "countries of lesser importance were worried and helpless spectators to verbal duels". (p.151) Mrs Roosevelt herself opposed the article on social protection for the family since the generic article on the right to a minimum standard of living already covered it. In December 1948, the third committee approved the draft for submission to the General Assembly, with the Soviet Bloc abstaining again and contemplating announcement of a rival draft.

In a last ditch effort to win over the USSR, Malik mentioned each Russian delegate who had served on the commission by name and praised them profusely before the General Assembly. Yet, when the speeches rolled out from the Stalinist brigade, they all condemned the declaration as "seriously defective". The final tally of votes read: 48 in favor, eight abstentions and no oppositions. Mrs Roosevelt attributed Russian obduracy mainly to Article 13 (everyone has the right to leave his country), which "they couldn't possibly accept" in the light of refugee and defection games of the Cold War. In 1949, the trial of Hungarian Cardinal Mindszenty and the plight of "Russian wives" received wide publicity in the Western media as a violation of the UDHR behind the Iron Curtain. In turn, communist states used sections of the declaration in their tirades against racial discrimination and economic injustice in America and Western Europe. The intention of the framers had been that the declaration would be considered holistically, but Cold War wrangling reduced it to a document for choosing selectively in propaganda warfare.

In the early 1950s, persecution of alleged "card-carrying communists" and atomic scientists who were "fellow travellers" turned America into an obstructionist force. Mrs Roosevelt personally despised McCarthyism for using "methods of fear to control all thought", but helplessly toed the State Department line (and the British Foreign Office's brief) that the unfinished covenant should be weak. Humphrey was so annoyed with the change in someone he admired so much that he commented bitterly, "Mrs R has become one of the most reactionary forces." Rifts grew between the ex-first lady and other members of the commission, culminating in her resignation in April 1951. Malik succeeded as the new chairman of the commission, which by 1952 was paralyzed due to the by now full-fledged Cold War. "Power politics was entering into and vitiating everything." (p.207)

The two covenants on civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights would not be finished until 1966, with the US not ratifying the former until 1992, and never ratifying the latter. Developing countries added a new layer of problems to the human rights regime by questioning the universality of the declaration in a multicultural world. Glendon feels that "cultural diversity has been exaggerated" by power-hungry and despotic Third World rulers on pretexts of neo-colonialism, cultural imperialism, self-determination, national sovereignty and economic development. It is often forgotten that the declaration did not reflect one particular philosophy, political system or people. What made it possible were "similarity among all human beings" and the notion of a single human experience irrespective of race, color, sex or nationality.

The declaration inspired rights provisions in more than 90 constitutions during its lifetime and more than 140 countries have signed the covenants. The declaration has retained a special place in the minds of victims of abuse and those fighting for their honor. As Mrs Roosevelt had envisaged, more than the legally binding covenants, the simplicity and syncretism of the "morally binding" declaration have been appealed to whenever the question of human rights has arisen. Glendon concludes with the apprehension that for Mrs Roosevelt and her dedicated band, freedom and economic security were two sides of the same coin, a notion that is being crushed today by sundering the declaration into two halves and separating rights to life, liberty and speech from global economic injustice.

People not yet born will pass judgment one day on whether we enhanced or squandered the inheritance handed down to us by Mrs Roosevelt, Malik, Chang, Cassin and Humphrey. The Cold War was a lost age as far as human rights were concerned. It is now up to the post-Cold War generation to pick up the pieces and remake the world where all humans are free and equal in principle and fact.

A World Made New. Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by Mary Ann Glendon, Random House, 2001. ISBN: 0-375-76046-6. Price: US$15.95, 333 pages.

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Nov 2, 2002




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