Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 114 (June/July 2001): 43-45.
A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By Mary Ann Glendon. Random House. 333 pp. $25.95.
Reviewed by Elliott Abrams
Mary Ann Glendon’s latest project is in its way far more ambitious than her previous books about human rights or family law, and far more difficult than her work educating tomorrow’s solons at Harvard Law School. For in A World Made New, she has set out to reclaim both Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the dubious, indeed hostile, regard of conservatives.
At least since the days of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick, of “Dictatorships and Double Standards” and the infamous resolution on Zionism and racism, the UN has been a target of conservative and neoconservative ire. Its declarations regarding human rights have an especially bitter taste for many Americans, including conservatives, coming as they so often do—even now—over the signatures of the delegates from Turkmenistan, Zimbabwe, and the People’s Republic of China. The Universal Declaration (UDHR) lends itself to cynicism and accusations of “globaloney,” given that its broad language was originally approved by Josef Stalin and has been employed as a weapon by dictators as well as a shield by citizens. As for Mrs. Roosevelt, she has been a conservative target for generations, the last word in syrupy liberalism, a figure of fun from another era.
To Professor Glendon, these attitudes are foolish and unfair. She has written a careful history of the Declaration and of Mrs. Roosevelt’s role in it, and finds a very great deal to admire. Using many materials never before available—memoirs or diaries of key participants such as the Lebanese delegate and later President of Lebanon, Charles Malik, and the newly opened Soviet archives—she has carefully patched together the public debates, off–the–record meetings, and private thoughts that led to the approval of the UDHR as we now know it. And she has faced up to the questions that critics most often ask: Does the Declaration matter? How “universal” are the values it expresses? Has it not lent itself to abuse, especially by dictators who cynically exploit the text’s grant of equal status for economic and social rights with political and civil rights?
Given the subject matter, it would have been impossible to make this story a ripping page–turner, and Glendon’s book does not compete with the most recent product of John Grisham or Elmore Leonard. Nevertheless, the story is an interesting one. For one thing, at its core is Mrs. Roosevelt, long an almost superhuman figure to liberals—right up there with Adlai Stevenson—and a target of conservative derision. The portrait we get here paints Mrs. Roosevelt as a woman quite conservative in demeanor and fundamental beliefs, and quite admirable in character. A deeply religious person who ended each day on her knees in prayer, she emerges primarily as one friend describes her: a person who “measured accomplishment in life more in terms of service than in terms of happiness.” “There was,” Glendon tells us, “something profoundly moving about the tall, plain woman with stern principles, a wise heart, and a radiant smile.”
In this account, her role as chairman of the Commission on Human Rights, a position to which she was appointed by Harry Truman in 1945, was central to its success. So Mrs. Roosevelt thought: “She herself had always considered her membership on the American UN delegation as the most important position of her life and her role in framing the Universal Declaration her most important contribution toward a better world.” Glendon agrees: “As chairman of the Human Rights Commission, Eleanor Roosevelt provided the leadership that kept the project moving, the political influence that held the State Department on board, and the personal attentions that made each member of the Commission feel respected.” Glendon describes some of the tactical and political judgments Mrs. Roosevelt made (for example, pushing for a nonbinding Declaration rather than more ambitious, enforceable covenants that would have required Senate passage), and here too Mrs. Roosevelt emerges a sensible and indeed savvy tactician.
But reclaiming Mrs. Roosevelt from conservative obloquy is only the smaller part of Prof. Glendon’s project here. The larger problem is the Declaration itself. Mrs. Roosevelt may indeed have been central to its adoption, but is this a claim of which anyone should be proud? There have been two main criticisms of the Declaration, one from the left or Third World, and the other from the right, especially the American right. The criticism from the Third World has most often described the UDHR as a Western product, a form of intellectual and political colonialism imposed just after the Second World War by Western delegates at a UN composed of the United States, the USSR, and a few declining colonial powers. Glendon disposes of this fantasy. She describes the key roles played by Charles Malik, a Lebanese Christian statesman and intellectual, P. C. Chang, the Chinese delegate, a man of broad culture familiar with Western and Chinese rights traditions, and several other key non–Western delegates. She notes as well that most provisions were adopted unanimously, with votes from Asian and Islamic countries as well as the Latin Americans, heirs to the continental rights tradition rather than our own. She reminds us that roughly 150 countries have voluntarily bound themselves not only to the Declaration, but to the far more precise Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic and Social Rights.
More attention is correctly dedicated in Glendon’s book to the conservative critique: that the Declaration equates economic and social with civil and political rights, and has thereby given generations of dictators a weapon. Equating the right to housing or to employment with the right to free speech or freedom of religion, goes the argument, allowed the Soviets and now allows the Chinese to say, “Well, you have your favorites and we have ours.” Worse yet, by using rights language for such social goals as good housing and good medical care, goals that are simply incapable of achievement in many places right now, the Declaration undercuts our ability to insist that rights are things that must be granted immediately and everywhere, independently of a nation’s wealth or stage of development.
To these arguments Prof. Glendon offers several answers. She does not entirely disagree, and acknowledges that “with hindsight, it is perhaps regrettable that the framers, in dealing with these provisions, did not adopt the obligation model. To couch the social security and welfare principles in terms of a common responsibility might have resonated better than rights in most of the world’s cultures.” But her defense only begins with this slight—in my view, much too slight—bow in the direction of critics.
First, she explains the Declaration’s main achievement: removing the individual from the total control of the state. As one of its authors, the French jurist René Cassin, said in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968, “the individual becomes a subject of international law in respect of his life and liberty.” If the jurisdiction of the state remained primary, it was no longer exclusive. Even critics must admit the weight of this contribution, which emerged from the ashes of Auschwitz and the testimony at Nuremberg and indeed inspired the efforts to create the Declaration. Everything positive in the modern international human rights movement begins with this proposition, and in this sense Prof. Glendon calls the Declaration the “parent document” of the movement.
Second, she argues that the Declaration has been invaluable as a set of goals. A specific example: “The last sentence of Article 25—on children born outside marriage—was . . . one of the earliest acknowledgments of a principle that would eventually transform national legislation nearly everywhere” regarding the rights of illegitimate children. More broadly, Mrs. Roosevelt saw and Prof. Glendon sees the UDHR as an educational effort and a “moral beacon” rather than a “vague proclamation.” Glendon admires the “large–souled men and women who strove to bring a standard of right from the ashes of terrible wrongs.”
Third and most powerfully, Glendon argues that the Declaration’s insistence on economic and social as well as political rights is in fact correct. It is here that Glendon adds to her identity as the Learned Hand Professor at Harvard Law School an additional side, namely her deep Catholic faith and her support for the social teachings of the Church and especially of the current Pope. For Glendon shares the view that there is more to man than the portrait of self–sufficient, independent, indeed isolated individuals drawn by some Anglo–American political philosophers. She is impatient not only with those who play down the Declaration’s insistence on political rights, but also with Westerners who would as soon forget its social side. “When read as it was meant to be, namely as a whole, it is an integrated document that rests on a concept of the dignity of the human person within the human family,” she insists.
Then she expands the argument: “Forgetfulness, neglect, and opportunism have obscured the Declaration’s message that rights have conditions—that everyone’s rights are importantly dependent on respect for the rights of others, on the rule of law, and on a healthy civil society.” Moreover, and here we see how Glendon is influenced by John Paul II, she reminds us that the Declaration “reflected a certain philosophy—the conviction that culture is prior to law,” because “the principal framers, though they differed on many points, were as one in their belief in the priority of culture.” The mere recitation of political and civil rights without reference to how they exist in their cultural setting would, to Glendon, be no improvement on the Declaration.
This is the best defense the Declaration has ever had or is likely to get. I would emphasize somewhat more than Prof. Glendon does the price paid for that error of using the single term “rights” to cover all the goals of the Declaration. And I cannot fully share her sense of its achievements. To take a prime example, she discusses in some detail the debate on religious freedom in the Human Rights Commission when the Declaration was being drafted. Was there a right to change one’s religion? Could Islam tolerate this supposition? Not according to the Saudis, who abstained on the final vote for adoption due to their disagreement here. But Glendon recounts the intervention of the delegate of Pakistan, then the UN’s most populous Islamic member nation, Foreign Minister Muhammad Zafrulla Khan. He explained that the Koran says there should be no compulsion regarding faith, so freedom to change beliefs was consistent with Islam. Pakistan would happily vote yes on the UDHR provision on the right to change one’s religion.
But the full story is far sadder. Zafrulla Khan was an Ahmadi, a Muslim sect now so oppressed in Pakistan that by law its members are not regarded as Muslims at all, and are actually jailed for calling themselves Muslims. To get passports, they must deny their faith. Ahmadis have trouble surviving, and it is impossible that one would now be foreign minister. This story is emble matic: in the Islamic world, the principles of the UDHR probably had wider acceptance in 1948, when the document was adopted by the United Nations, than they do today. The world’s most populous nation, China, accepts the Declaration in principle—but the Chinese signer in 1948 represented a country striving for freedom, not the Communist dictatorship that has for fifty years striven to prevent Chinese from building freedom on the moral, religious, and political traditions of Confucianism.
Still, Glendon’s assessment of the Declaration is most often persuasive, and her argument about its key role in the modern human rights movement is convincing. Her portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt is unexpected, warm, and affecting. In A World Made New, Glendon is reclaiming not only Mrs. Roosevelt but the Universal Declaration itself from conservative skepticism. Flawed, yes, she asserts, but so are we all and so are all our own efforts to promote human rights. When a small group of dedicated men and women produce a document that has been so useful to the protection of human rights in so many lands for over half a century, she suggests, perfectionism is hardly an appropriate standard for us to employ. Fairness compels that we recognize what they achieved and understand how they did it. Here, with warmth and elegance, she tells the story.
Elliott Abrams is President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Chairman
of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.