National Review: When the United Nations Actually Stood for Something Good
This article was originally posted at National Review.
In a rare moment of concord, members of the United Nations General Assembly rose to honor an American political leader for her role in crafting the world’s first international bill of rights. Seventy-five years ago, on December 10, 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt, former first lady, got a standing ovation for guiding to passage the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Though not legally binding, the UDHR would become a transformational document and the conceptual North Star for the modern human-rights movement.
At the moment of its passage, however, one of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the Soviet Union, along with its communist client states — was engaged in a ruthless campaign to destroy the most basic rights and freedoms of half the population of Europe.
In June 1948, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had ordered a blockade of West Berlin, in an effort to drive the democratic Allies out of Germany and tighten its totalitarian grip over the continent. Harry Truman, who became president after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, responded with the Berlin Airlift: American and British planes, loaded with food, fuel, and clothing, began landing every few minutes — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — to keep the West Berliners alive and free. The Cold War was in full swing.
It was the Second World War and the Holocaust, of course, that put the issue of human rights at the center of efforts to remake the international order. It would have been inconceivable not to address the question of human rights, given the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, the full extent of which became known in 1945–46 during the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals.
The conscience of mankind was quickened by these revelations — just long enough to reflect on what it means to be human, and the natural obligations we have to one another as members of the same human family.
The leadership in the Kremlin, however, was indifferent to matters of conscience, having dispensed with God and the concept of moral truth from the days of the 1917 Marxist revolution. The Soviet Union’s most recent act of aggression apparently prompted a “come to Jesus” moment for Mrs. Roosevelt and much of the democratic West: the end of illusions about the nature of atheistic communism. She finally grasped that the Soviets meant something quite different by the terms “freedom” and “democracy” as understood in the United States.
Speaking at the Sorbonne in Paris in September 1948, Mrs. Roosevelt admitted that Moscow’s failure to respect human rights had become a major obstacle to world peace. “We must not be deluded by the efforts of the forces of reaction to prostitute the great words of our free tradition and thereby to confuse the struggle,” she said. “We know the patterns of totalitarianism: the single political party, the control of schools, press, radio, the arts, the sciences, and the church to support autocratic authority.”
Mrs. Roosevelt’s moral awakening was late in coming. As the American representative on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, she carried the immense prestige of her husband’s reputation. She also shared the weaknesses of his political outlook: a naïveté about radical evil that is now deeply rooted in the progressive Left (and, it seems, in the theocratic pretensions of the new Right).
Franklin Roosevelt set a new template of delusionary politics for the political Left. Once the Soviet Union became an ally of the United States in the war against Hitler’s Germany, Roosevelt transformed Stalin — one of the most vicious, paranoid, and murderous dictators of the 20th century — into “Uncle Joe.” Uncle Joe Stalin, FDR told the American people, was a courageous statesman and political visionary who really wanted the same egalitarian society sought by Western leaders.
Like her husband, Eleanor Roosevelt believed that the Russians nurtured democratic impulses — they just needed a little encouragement. During the debates over the core principles of the Universal Declaration, the Soviets — with their materialist outlook on human existence — insisted that social and economic “rights” be included alongside basic political and civil rights. As co-author of the New Deal, Mrs. Roosevelt was sympathetic to the Russian appeal and willing to accommodate them to win their approval for the document.
The result: The Universal Declaration includes not only civil and political rights (articles 1–21), but also economic and social rights (articles 22–29). The “right” to a paid vacation sits on the same moral plane as the right not to be tortured. Human rights — the natural and unalienable rights articulated by John Locke and the American Founders — became hopelessly confused with social aspirations. This represented a radical break from virtually all previous human-rights documents. (In the end, the Soviets balked, abstaining from the U.N. vote on the UDHR.)
Nevertheless, perhaps the most important achievement of the Universal Declaration was its defense of individual conscience in matters of faith. Article 18 affirms the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.” The article also explicitly promotes the public influence of religion: “This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Here is the crown jewel of the entire document, a thoroughly American understanding of the centrality of religious liberty to democratic societies. It is freedom of conscience that anchors freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, and the right to protest the government. Since the passage of the UDHR, even secular-minded human-rights groups have been obliged to criticize governments for persecuting religious minorities or treating religious believers as a de facto threat to the state. The U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief has usually attracted the most fair-minded diplomats in the U.N. system.
It was not an American, however, who delivered the most effective defense of religious freedom during the debates over the UDHR. Rather, it was the Lebanese ambassador to the United States, Charles Malik, an Arab Christian and great admirer of America. “People’s minds and consciences are the most sacred and inviolable things about them,” he argued, “not their belonging to this or that class, this or that nation, or this or that religion.”
As the chief author of Article 18, Malik had to fight off its critics — not only the Soviet delegates, but also those from the Arab states and socialist governments like that of India. The Indian delegate, Hansa Mehta, rejected Malik’s effort to establish a philosophical and spiritual basis for human dignity. “We should not enter into this maze of ideology,” she said. Malik fired back: “Well, unfortunately, whatever you say, Madam, one must have ideological presuppositions and, no matter how much you fight shy of them, they are there and you either hide them or you are brave enough to bring them out into the open.”
Malik offered a model of Christian statesmanship at a crisis moment in the West, when the biblical foundations of our democratic ideals faced a totalitarian threat. His brand of leadership is still needed, because new threats to human freedom are on the move.
In the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its authors decried the fact that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” Yet U.N. members parade their contempt for its principles with impunity. Authoritarian states like Russia — despite its brutal and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine — maintain their status as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Earlier this year, Communist China earned a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council — despite its genocidal campaign against the Uyghurs and its abrogation of basic democratic freedoms in Hong Kong.
“Unless man’s proper nature, unless his mind and spirit are brought out, set apart, protected, and promoted,” Malik warned, “the struggle for human rights is a sham and a mockery.” There is no hope of reversing the international sham of protecting human rights until a new generation of statesmen takes up Malik’s challenge.
Joseph Loconte, PhD, is a Presidential Scholar in Residence at New College of Florida and the C.S. Lewis Scholar for Public Life at Grove City College. He is the author of God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West. His most recent book is the New York Times bestseller A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War.