The horrors of the Second World War inspired two major declarations of faith—the United Nations Charter (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Both emerged in the brief, politically temperate interlude between the last months of battle and the beginning of the cold war. As with most declarations of faith, their adherents—first and foremost, governments—have frequently failed to live up to them, but practically all governments say they accept the basic code of conduct these declarations expound. Governments and people, especially in peaceful times, may grow disillusioned with the United Nations; horrendous atrocities may sometimes make a mockery of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; but these two documents set standards for a tolerable society on this planet. The continuing effort to achieve and maintain those standards is the frontier between civilization and barbarism.
Both declarations certainly made sense to people who had just been through six years of world war. With more than forty-five million killed and unimaginable ruin and misery, who could object to the words (said to have been written by Field Marshal Jan Smuts and Archibald MacLeish) of the preamble to the UN Charter?
We the peoples of the United Nations determined…to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind…to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom….
After the death marches and the Holocaust, who could quibble with the opening words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
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.
The creation and acceptance, in a steadily deteriorating international climate, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was perhaps the more remarkable accomplishment of the two. Its drafting in 1947 and 1948 presented fundamental philosophical, social, religious, legal, and political problems of extraordinary complexity. To governments preoccupied by reconstruction and postwar political crises—Palestine, the Berlin blockade, Kashmir—human rights must sometimes have seemed like a distracting sideshow, something that could surely wait for easier times. Fortunately, for the times got steadily more difficult, the remarkable group that wrote the declaration persisted in the face of all obstacles. Mary Ann Glendon’s A World Made New gives a fascinating and surprisingly personal account of their achievement.
Without the leadership and vision of Eleanor Roosevelt it is unlikely that the Universal Declaration could have been completed and accepted by all but a few governments. In those early postwar years she occupied an incomparable position on the international scene. She was not just a great president’s widow; she became, in her own right, almost a force of nature, a figure of majestic wisdom and simplicity. Glendon quotes E.J. Kahn’s description of her, “a person of towering unselfishness”—a quality that by itself set her apart from the striving national statesmen of the time.
When she …