Mary Ann Glendon on "Parent Document" of Modern Human Rights

Talks of U.N.´s 1948 Universal Declaration

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CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts, MAR. 19, 2001 ( Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon, who led the Holy See´s delegation to the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing, gave an interview with ZENIT on her newest book.

The work, “A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (Random House, 2001), is available at (

Q: Why did you decide to write a book on the framing of the Universal Declaration?

Glendon: As the human rights idea has come into its own, fierce contests have erupted over the meaning and import of the “parent document” of the modern human rights movement: the U.N.´s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet there has been surprisingly little written about the framing and the original understanding of the UDHR.<br>
I was encouraged to go forward when I found a great deal of previously unpublished material that shed new light on the framing — diaries and letters of the “founding parents” as well as freshly declassified material from the Soviet archives.

Q: How does Eleanor Roosevelt come into the story?

Glendon: Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the U.N. Human Rights Commission that drafted the declaration. Interestingly, though she considered her work in the U.N. to have been the most important of her long and fruitful life, her biographers have not gone into the U.N. transcripts or treated her work there in detail. Most biographies leave off when she leaves the White House in 1945. That is where my story begins — in April 1945, with the death of FDR and the opening of the U.N.´s founding conference in San Francisco.

Q: What, actually, is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Glendon: One of the first acts of the U.N. in the wake of the horrors of World War II was to commission an “international bill of rights” — a short list of principles so fundamental that they could win acceptance from all peoples and nations.

The declaration was meant to serve as a common standard by which nations could measure their own and each other´s progress. As an aspirational document, it is not legally binding. It was expected that different nations would bring its principles to life in different ways, and that all would benefit from the resulting accumulation of experiences.

Q: How can a nonbinding document advance the cause of human rights?

Glendon: There are three ways in which the UDHR has already been extremely influential.

First, it was the model for most post-World War II rights instruments — the majority of bills of rights that are in effect today as well as numerous treaties.

Second, its principles have served as rallying points for the nonviolent movements that train the searchlight of publicity on human rights abuses that in former times would often have escaped criticism.

And third, the UDHR — with its small core of principles to which people of vastly different backgrounds can appeal — has become the single most important common reference point for cross-cultural discussions of how we are to order our future together in our increasingly interdependent, but conflict-ridden, world.

As for the years ahead, in a world being rapidly transformed by global economic forces, one may hope that the declaration will serve as a reminder that productivity and efficiency are not the most important values.

Q: What is the significance of the title, “A World Made New”?

Glendon: The title is taken from a prayer that Mrs. Roosevelt liked so much that she carried it around in her purse, and, according to her son, said nightly. It concludes with these words: “Save us from ourselves and show us a vision of a world made new.”

It has a double significance in that it expresses the hopes of the founders of the U.N. for the war-torn world and it evokes Mrs. Roosevelt´s struggle to rebuild her personal world. Her own life had fallen apart in April 1945 when she simultaneously had to deal with the death of her husband and the shocking discovery that he had died in the company of a woman he had promised never to see again after an affair that had nearly ended the Roosevelt marriage.

Q: How does this book relate to your experiences in the field of human rights?

Glendon: The experience of the leading the Holy See delegation to the U.N.´s Beijing women´s conference in 1995 brought home to me the degree to which the Universal Declaration is currently under siege. Since that conference was supposed to produce a declaration, and since U.N. declarations by custom base themselves on the 1948 document, I was surprised when much of the conference was taken up with efforts by European delegates to eliminate standard cross-references to several key provisions of the UDHR, e.g., the articles on religious freedom, parental rights, marriage and the family, and the protection of motherhood and childhood.

That spectacle piqued my interest in the history of the UDHR, because I was fairly sure that it was not designed as a menu from which one can pick and choose. And, as I was disappointed with the short shrift given to the feminization of poverty at the Beijing conference, I wanted to know if it was really true, as many Americans said, that the social and economic rights in the declaration had merely been inserted as concessions to the Soviet bloc. So I decided to try to get to the bottom of those questions.

Q: What were your principal findings?

Glendon: The material in the U.N. records goes a long to way toward correcting several misunderstandings that have arisen over the years concerning the UDHR. Contrary to the claim by some Asian, African and Islamic leaders that the UDHR was a “Western” document, I found that it was the product of an impressively, though imperfectly, multicultural collaboration.

Contrary to the notion that its social and economic provisions were Soviet-inspired, I found that those principles were supported by all the liberal democracies, but repugnant to the Soviet bloc because the declaration did not acknowledge the state as the exclusive enforcer.

As I had anticipated, I found that the UDHR had been constructed as an integrated document whose principles are “universal, interdependent and indivisible.” In particular, the older political and civil rights were regarded as indispensable for the newer social and economic rights, and vice versa.

Q: What do you say to those who claim that Mrs. Roosevelt and her colleagues were just naive idealists?

Glendon: It is easy to forget how very hardheaded these men and women were about what it would take to achieve, in the words of the declaration, “better standards of life in larger freedom.”

Many self-styled “realists” of the day scoffed at the work of the Human Rights Commission, but one group who did not were the Soviet leaders. Like Mrs. Roosevelt and her colleagues, they understood the power of ideas. The Soviets feared “soft power” even as the framers of the declaration counted on it.

Subsequent events have shown who the real “realists” were. Though progress has been painfully slow, hardly any flagrant or repeated instance of rights abuse now escapes publicity, and most governments now go to great lengths to avoid being blacklisted as notorious violators.

Q: If Mrs. Roosevelt and her colleagues could survey the human rights landscape today, what do you think they would want to tell their successors?

Glendon: I believe they would be disappointed in the way the declaration has been pulled apart and politicized. Therefore, it seems to me they would say something very similar to what Pope John Paul II said to the U.N. on its 50th anniversary in 1995: “You have taken the risk of freedom. Now, why not take the risk of solidarity, and thus the risk of peace?”

They would also surely remind us that
the struggle for human rights is first and foremost a cultural struggle. As Jacques Maritain once put it, “Whether the music played on the declaration´s thirty strings will be in tune with or harmful to human dignity will depend primarily on the extent to which a culture of human dignity develops.”

If Maritain were alive today, no doubt he would join his voice to that of the Holy Father in emphasizing the responsibility of each and every one of us to contribute to the building of a civilization of life and love.

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