“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 of all men everywhere.” -Eleanor Roosevelt, Speech to U.N. General Assembly on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 9, 1948
In December 1945, seeking to signal America’s commitment to the new United Nations organization— and cement his ties to a powerful Democratic party figure— President Harry Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to America’s first delegation to the General Assembly.
Eleanor quickly became a major force on refugee and human rights issues. From 1946 to 1951 she chaired the U.N. Human Rights Commission leading the effort to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An able and determined negotiator, she clashed frequently with Soviet delegates over the definition of human liberties. In the process, she pushed the State Department to recognize that human rights are not only civil and political rights, but social and economic rights too. The Declaration was Eleanor’s proudest achievement at the U.N. It created the modern definition of human rights. Today it is the standard for establishing norms governing international behavior regarding the rights of individuals.
Eleanor’s duties as a delegate to the United Nations included many trips abroad to London, Paris and Geneva. Eleanor received several gifts during these trips including:
A tortoise shell box presented to ER by an English woman as a token of appreciation in the winter of 1946.
A color print of the painting by Frank Beresford of Eleanor Roosevelt addressing the United Nations in London, England, on February 12, 1946. Inscribed and presented to ER by the artist.
A University of Lyon Academic Stole and Cap presented to ER in November 1948 when she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by the University of Lyon, France.
A silver United Nations medallion presented to ER by the government of France.
A watercolor of the Rue des Corps-Saints in Geneva’s Old Town by Harry Urban. Presented to ER by the artist in April 1951. The painting hung in the living room of ER’s NYC apartment until her death.
A group of French commemorative medallions, including one for FDR, from the government of France given to ER during her 1951-52 trip.
A lithograph of The American Church of Paris by Frank Milton Armington. Presented to ER by the church’s minister, Clayton E. Williams, in December 1951. The print hung in the living room of ER’s NYC apartment until her death.
Both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were instrumental in the early formation of the United Nations. FDR first discussed a “family of nations” with Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Atlantic Charter conference in August 1941, ultimately proposing the name “United Nations” following a meeting of 26 nations in 1942, and later began preliminary discussions with the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and China about the structure of a world political organization.
At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, FDR, Churchill and Premier Stalin of the Soviet Union agreed that the “Big Five” nations (United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, France and China) would be permanent members of a United Nations Security Council, a special committee with powers to keep the peace. The leaders also agreed to call a conference in San Francisco, California on April 25, 1945 to prepare a Charter for the new organization. FDR planned to attend the opening of the San Francisco Conference, but he died in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945.
Eleanor herself was appointed as a member of the first U.S. delegation to the United Nations in 1945 by President Harry Truman and she served as chairman of the UN’s Human Rights commission.
The FDR Library will present “The Roosevelts’ United Nations: Then & Now,” a free public forum at 3:00 p.m. in the Henry A. Wallace Center at the FDR Presidential Library and Home on October 24, 2015. This forum will explore the creation and history of the United Nations, its successes and failures, and ways in which it may best face the challenges of tomorrow.