One Woman's Crusadeto Make the World Safer

By Rubin, Merle | The Christian Science Monitor, March 8, 2001 | Go to article overview

One Woman's Crusadeto Make the World Safer


Rubin, Merle, The Christian Science Monitor


Mary Ann Glendon takes the title of her latest book from the conclusion of Eleanor Roosevelt's nightly prayer: "Save us from ourselves and show us a vision of a world made new."

There is the irony of the quest for human rights: The worst enemies of human rights are human beings themselves. Yet in the aftermath of World War II, a group of far-sighted people brought forth a document designed, as Glendon puts it, "to improve the odds of reason and conscience against power and interest."

On Dec. 10, 1948, without a single dissent, the United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, though its principles have often been violated, the declaration has served as an inspiration and a rallying cry for people all over the world.

The story of how this document came to be written and adopted is fascinating from a philosophical perspective, involving questions like: What is a human being? What is society? How do we balance civil and political liberties with economic and social welfare?

It is equally fascinating from the perspective of diplomacy, showing how a group of individuals, disagreeing among themselves, shepherded the declaration through a minefield of international and interpersonal conflict.

The difficulties were daunting. One of the participants, Lebanon's Charles Malik, wrote in his diary: "Intrigue, lobbying, secret arrangements, blocs, etc. It's terrible."

A philosophy professor, Malik added: "Power politics and bargaining nauseate me. There is so much unreality and play and sham that I can't swing myself into this atmosphere and act." But that was before he met Eleanor Roosevelt.

Indeed, Glendon's book reminds us that it is almost impossible to overestimate the greatness of Eleanor Roosevelt. In her role as US delegate to the UN, we can only marvel at Mrs. Roosevelt's combination of high principles and political adroitness. Her devotion to noble goals was equaled by her "people smarts," as she parried attacks on US policies, defused tensions, and built bridges of consensus.

The declaration was a group effort, and Glendon shows us what a remarkable group they were. Their numbers included Roosevelt and Malik; as well as P.C. Chang, China's Renaissance man; Rene Cassin, a key figure in de Gaulle's resistance; Carlos Romulo, a fiery Philippine anti-colonialist; and Hansa Mehta of India, who worked to ensure that the declaration would include the rights of women.

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