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
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
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. …