Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Address

By Declan Burns

The Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Address was a speech delivered by John Peters Humphreys for the Collegiate Council for the United Nations at Sarah Lawrence College, New York on the 17th of June, 1966. The speech details Humphrey’s experience of working with Eleanor Roosevelt in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, her subsequent work with the United Nations on attempting to follow up the Declaration with binding covenants (for she was convinced it was “not legally binding on the States [sic] and that its value was moral only”[1]), the consequences of her efforts and the next step for human rights on the international stage. As would be expected from a memorial address (Roosevelt died four years prior to the speech) for an organisation that sought to promote the United Nations among American colleges[2] the tone is largely celebratory, ultimately declaring that subsequent progress has been a “monument… to the memory of a great American” whose name has become synonymous with the UN human rights programme.[3] Whilst this sometimes leads to hyperbole, this speech should still be considered significant as it furthers our understanding of key figures in the development of international human rights (specifically Roosevelt and himself), provides an argument for the development of a body of international law and explores the relationship of human rights to the Cold War.

Primary among the document is the lauding of the Declaration as a significant, world changing achievement. The authors’ achievement, Humphrey believes, marked an “epoch in history” – a claim he admits is bold considering the less than twenty year gap between the Declaration’s publication and this speech – toward an international community focused on the “promotion of respect for human rights”.[4]  Whether this marked the beginning of a rights regime is a much debated question amongst scholars. Some, such as former Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff, would agree, heralding it as a quintessential moment, whereas others have focused elsewhere, such as Samuel Moyn who emphasised the discrediting of other competing metanarratives in the 1970s.[5] For Humphrey, this analysis is predicated on the subsequent developments; for him the Declaration and Roosevelt’s work on covenants is the genealogy of international law itself.[6] It must be noted that the significance attributed to the covenants appears to be somewhat a political decision made for the occasion as, in his memoir, Humphrey complains that “I thought the Declaration would be much more important than the covenant”, demarcating his position more clearly.[7] Nevertheless, it is clear that Humphrey attributes a significant role to Eleanor Roosevelt for the promotion and development of human rights internationally.

This celebratory discourse translates into Humphrey’s discussion of the personal. He goes to great lengths to portray the work of the Human Rights Commission (of which he and Eleanor Roosevelt worked on) as an underdog narrative, succeeding against great odds. Roosevelt, he explains in the speech, had to work against sexist opposition from within her own government, being relegated to a lower committee where they believed she would “do the least harm”.[8] Cynically, it is arguable that this underdog narrative (and the exceptionalism of the Document mentioned elsewhere) attributes a self-interested element to the speech. Humphrey aligns himself with it by noting that his enthusiasm far outweighed his professional capabilities in the period and that he did not really know what was expected of him.[9] Both he and Roosevelt are therefore portrayed as pioneers battling against the odds, suggesting that Humphrey is articulating a ‘great individuals’ vision of history congruent with both increasing their reputations and also his individualistic construction of rights (“the purpose of which is to protect the individual against the tyranny of states”).[10] This is only further amplified by repeated reference to ‘destiny’, truly emphasising the importance attached to them as figures in the development.

Roosevelt herself seemingly embodies noble qualities that could easily be associated with human rights legislation such as “a warm sympathy for people – people interested her and counted for her as people”.[11] Sometimes Humphrey’s rhetoric tends toward hyperbole. For example, he details that an encounter between Roosevelt and a Russian official which resulted in the him being beside himself in gratitude for Humphrey’s introduction suggested that her “general good-will and understanding” could possibly have maintained the Great Alliance from World War Two.[12] This claim is far-fetched in its ambition and, furthermore, seemingly does not even fit the reality of Roosevelt’s relationship to the Soviet Union. Whilst noting that she was not to the belligerent extremes of other significant American leaders, the historiography still generally portrays her as a ‘reluctant Cold Warrior’.[13] Humphrey also once again contradicts this speech in his memoir. Whilst here Roosevelt is portrayed as a key diplomatic cog between the United States and the Russians, in Human Rights and the United Nations: a Great Adventure he complains at her “impolitical statement” that the Soviets would not accept the draft covenants.[14]

Although this relationship between Roosevelt and the Soviets appears exaggerated and unrealistic it does allude to another significant aspect of the speech – the relationship of human rights to the Cold War.  By attributing Roosevelt’s warmth to the human rights agenda Humphrey conversely implies the opposite to the Communist bloc, i.e. that they are an impediment to values of common humanity, relegating them to the often applied cold, machine-like trope which characterised much Cold War discourse. Humphrey’s and Roosevelt’s achievements are once again thus amplified via crafting the Declaration during the “very heart of the Cold War which was then at its worst” (ostensibly once again hyperbole – after all, Humphrey had witnessed the Cuban missile crises only four years prior).[15] Finally, going forward, the Soviet Union is portrayed as the biggest hindrance to what Humphrey perceives as the necessary next step in the development of the human rights agenda – the creation of a High Commissioner specifically for human rights work at the UN. This is attributed to complaints over sovereignty, conveniently forgetting that the U.S. has raised such complaints hitherto in relation to human rights developments (as did Canada, who initially abstained on the Declaration for ‘fears of impinging on provincial jurisdiction’).[16] The implication is therefore that human rights – even for figures such as Humphrey who extol rights for their own value – were a significant public relations weapon on the international stage, forming a more subtle part of the ideological war characteristic of the period.

[1] “Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Address, 17 June 1966”, MG 4127 C.18 F.372, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives: 5.

[2] “About Us”, Nmun.Org, 2017, http://www.nmun.org/ncca.html.

[3] “Memorial Address”: 10.

[4] Ibid: 4.

[5] Michael Ignatieff, The Rights Revolution, 2nd ed. (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2007); Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia, 1st ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010).

[6] “Memorial Address”: 6.

[7] John Peters Humphrey, Human Rights & The United Nations: A Great Adventure (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Transnational Publishers, Inc., 1984): 65.

[8] “Memorial Address”: 2.

[9] Ibid: 2.

[10] Ibid: 10.

[11] Ibid: 3.

[12] Ibid : 4.

[13] M. Glen Johnson, “The Contributions Of Eleanor And Franklin Roosevelt To The Development Of International Protection For Human Rights”, Human Rights Quarterly 9, no. 1 (1987): 38.

[14] Humphrey, Human Rights & the United Nations: 65.

[15] “Memorial Address”: 5.

[16] Ibid: 9; Johnson, “Contributions”: 45.

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