Roosevelt, Eleanor

born 1884, New York, New York died 1962, New York City


Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was referred to by John Humphrey as “the most important person in the United Nations Human Rights Program.” She was first appointed a member of the US delegation to the First Session of the United Nations by President Truman, and later became a delegate to the Third Committee on Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Affairs. It was when working as a delegate of the Nuclear Committee that she was elected chair of the Commission on Human Rights and finally chair of Drafting Committee. Eleanor Roosevelt was chair of the Human Rights Commission between 1947-1950, the longest mandate in the history of the Commission.


"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."

Although she had already won international respect and admiration in her role as First Lady to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt’s work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would become her greatest legacy. She was without doubt, the most influential member of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights.

Unlike most other members of the Commission, Mrs. Roosevelt was neither a scholar nor an expert on international law. Her enthusiasm for her work at the United Nations was rooted in her humanitarian convictions and her steady faith in human dignity and worth. Although she often joked that she was out of place among so many academics and jurists, her intellect and compassion were great assets, and proved to be of crucial importance in the composition of a direct and straightforward Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

With characteristic modesty, Eleanor Roosevelt considered her position on the Commission to be one of ambassador for the common man and woman:

"I used to tell my husband that, if he could make me understand something, it would be clear to all other people in the country, and perhaps that will be my real value on this drafting commission!"

The delegates to the Commission on Human Rights elected Eleanor Roosevelt their Chairperson. Like so many individuals throughout the world, the delegates recognized Eleanor Roosevelt’s unparalleled humanitarian convictions. During her tenure in the White House she had assisted her physically disabled husband in political matters, serving as his "eyes and ears," traveling throughout the U.S. to gauge the mood of the people. Through this work, she became widely esteemed as a person who both understood and felt the plight of the common man and woman.

Even prior to her years in the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt was actively engaged in politics and advocacy on the local and national level. She was an astute, accomplished, and intelligent woman, thoroughly familiar with the world of political negotiation. Just as she had served as a liaison of sorts between the President and his constituency, so she acted as a liaison between the Commission and the hopes of humanity. She may have lacked certain factual knowledge, but she had a keen sense of what the average person expected out of life - what men, women and children needed to flourish as individuals.

Her common sense approach, constant optimism and boundless energy were integral to the smooth facilitation of meetings. On any given issue, her colloquial style and good humor were engaged not only to win over the majority of delegates who generally supported a particular U.S. position, but to confound those who opposed it. A New York Times reporter who was present at the Commission meetings wrote of the power Mrs. Roosevelt’s personality had over certain unreasonable diplomats:

"The Russians seem to have met their match in Mrs. Roosevelt. The proceedings sometimes turn into a long vitriolic attack on the U.S. when she is not present. These attacks, however, generally denigrate into flurries in the face of her calm and undisturbed but often pointed replies."

If Mrs. Roosevelt made one sort of impression with her familiar style, she made another with her commitment to produce a universally accepted, "living" declaration. She was recognized as a tireless worker, stating triumphantly at one point, "I drive hard and when I get home I will be tired! The men on the Commission will be also!".

Envisioning a declaration with enduring principles that would be perpetually recognized by all nations, she was a strong advocate of true universality within the Declaration. She was adamant that different conceptions of human rights be deliberated during the UDHR’s composition:

We wanted as many nations as possible to accept the fact that men, for one reason or another, were born free and equal in dignity and rights, that they were endowed with reason and conscience, and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood. The way to do that was to find words that everyone would accept.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal sense of accomplishment with the finished Declaration was unparalleled in her life. Her speech before the General Assembly as she submitted the Declaration for review demonstrates the historical significance she placed upon its adoption:

"We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere. We hope its proclamation by the General Assembly will be an event comparable to the proclamation in 1789 [of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man], the adoption of the Bill of Rights by the people of the U.S., and the adoption of comparable declarations at different times in other countries..."

Eleanor Roosevelt’s concern for humanity made her the driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Her leadership of the Commission on Human Rights led to the composition of a Declaration that has endured as a universally accepted standard of achievement for all nations. As our respect for and understanding of the Universal Declaration has grown, so too has our gratitude and admiration for this modest woman who passionately pursued what she imagined would become a cornerstone in the struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms for everyone - everywhere.

She lived her life in the center of what many would regard the Twentieth Century’s most consequential events, the Great Depression, World War II, the establishment of the United Nations and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She confronted both opportunity and adversity with a sense of optimism and determination. A former Democratic presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, once said of Eleanor Roosevelt, "She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness."

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