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.
Glendon deftly locates these players in the context of an increasingly fraught world. As representatives sought common ground, Arab nations were attacking the new state of Israel, Communists were seizing power in China and Czechoslovakia, and the American-Soviet wartime alliance was falling apart.
A central bone of contention for the framers of the declaration was: To what extent, if any, should the provisions be enforceable? Was it simply, as some argued, a waste of time to issue a declaration that made no provision for punishing violations? Or, if the document were drafted as an enforceable covenant with real "teeth," would the US and USSR withdraw their support?
Glendon, a Harvard law professor and a critic of what she considers a combative approach to enforcing rights, defends the less rigorous approach that was in fact adopted. Only the more gradual effects of moral suasion and education, she believes, can lead to the changes that pave the way for legal enforcement of rights. And in this, she argues, the declaration has proved a qualified success, a beacon, showing people the way to a better future.
Glendon mounts a persuasive defense of the declaration's "universality." Its framers, as she shows us, consulted a wide range of traditions in defining human rights, creating a structure flexible enough to allow for cultural differences, yet forthright in its enunciation of the fundamentals.
Current mantras of cultural relativism, she points out, give cover to authoritarian leaders seeking to silence criticism, while the growing number of Westerners who have ceased to believe in the idea of truth and falsehood may be even more dangerous.
"It is one thing," she writes, "to acknowledge that the human mind can glimpse truth only partially, quite another to deny its existence altogether." Glendon's fine book enhances our appreciation of the men and women who sought and found a way to enunciate universals.
Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.
A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
By Mary Ann Glendon Random House 333 pp., $25.95
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor