May 30, 2024


Americans are pretty broad in their definition of the word “right.” We claim rights to a host of activities that might better be described as privileges or even wants. A whirlwind trip around the globe would narrow our understanding of “rights,” and leave us both appreciative of the freedoms we enjoy and appalled at the tyranny that hangs over millions of others.

Eleanor Roosevelt understood that though the forces of liberation had defeated those who brought systematic annihilation, persecution and subjugation to much of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia in World War II, the struggle for universal human rights was far from over. Dec. 10 will mark the 60th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document Mrs. Roosevelt worked to create.

It was fitting that Mrs. Roosevelt chose furthering the cause of human rights around the world as her goal in the postwar years. In many ways, that goal was consistent with what her late husband aimed to achieve on the international stage. One can only wonder what would have happened had Franklin Roosevelt survived to finish his fourth term.

A timeline on the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute’s Web site for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ( lists advances and retreats in the cause of human rights dating from the Greek and Roman empires to the present. One of many interesting entries is a 1941 speech to Congress by President Roosevelt, in which he enumerated the four freedoms essential for all people: freedom of speech and religion, and the freedom from want and fear. The speech preceded the Pearl Harbor attack.

The next year, after the attack, the U.S. government forcibly moved some 120,000 Japanese-Americans from the western U.S. to detention camps, the timeline also notes. Such is the nature of the struggle – two steps forward, one step back.

In 1945, the U.N. was established, and its charter states it exists in large part to promote and encourage “respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” In 1948, after tireless effort by Mrs. Roosevelt and others, the U.N.’s General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The declaration addresses the “inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” and specifically opposes torture, slavery and unjust imprisonment, and endorses the right to marry, own property, travel, assemble and worship freely, and to have access to education and health care.

Few in the West would argue these exist as basic claims that come with being human. The question for our times is how can the U.S. further this agenda around the world short of invasion and bombings?

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