The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project

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Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen. First I would like to thank you very much for a very nice introduction. Then I would like to say how much I wish that I could speak to you in your language. It's always a marvel to me when people speak to me in my language, and I'm very much ashamed that I cannot answer in theirs. I will try, however, to speak as simply and as clearly as possible and if the women who primarily organized this meeting feel that they want to ask me questions afterwards about anything that is not clear, I will be delighted to try to answer.

I was asked to tell you a little about my work in the UN. I began to work in 1946 in London at the first meeting of the General Assembly. I was the one woman on the United States delegation. Now in the Indonesian Constitution women have equal rights with men and many of the things which are in the Declaration of Human Rights are also in the Indonesian Constitution. But all of us know that having something in the constitution of a country doesn't always mean that it actually happens just the way it's written down in the constitution.

In my country, women today in many ways have complete equality. They have equal opportunity for education. They can work in practically any field that they wish to work in. But for a woman to be named on a delegation to the UN I knew very well was an experiment. I knew very well that if I did anything wrong it wouldn't just be my failure, it would be all women who had failed. If I hadn't been able to do the work that was to be done, then they would say, "You see it's a mistake to name a woman because women aren't capable of doing such and such a thing." So I felt a very great sense of responsibility and I behaved with the greatest possible care during that first session of the General Assembly, not only with other delegates but with my own delegates.

It just happened that I was put on Committee Three. Committee Three in the General Assembly deals with humanitarian, cultural and social questions. And the first question that caused a great deal of argument was the question of whether people displaced through the war and at that time in camps in Europe should be returned to their countries of origin against their will. The Soviet delegates were saying that everyone should go back to the country he came from because if he did not want to go back it was because he had been a traitor to his country. Many of us knew that a great many people were out of their countries because the governments of their countries had changed. It was now no longer their country; it belonged to another government and it was a different kind of government. Therefore, a good many people did not want to go back to their countries of origin. And we argued for a long time that people should not be repatriated against their will. It came up finally in the General Assembly at the very last meeting in the report of Committee Three, and the Soviets spoke on the need for sending everyone back. Anyone who didn't want to go should be sent back to be tried in his own country, they said, because he must be a traitor. Well, there was a great deal of excitement in the United States delegation, because I had served Committee Three.

Nobody else knew anything about this question and I saw all the gentlemen putting their heads together and finally one of them came over to me and said, "do you thing you could say something about this question?" I could see quite well that the idea that a woman was going to get up and speak to the General Assembly was a terrifying idea to all the men in my delegation. They were frightened to death. They thought, "Oh dear, she'll do something terrible; she'll say something she shouldn't say and it'll be awful. Nobody will be persuaded by her." But there wasn't anyone else who knew anything about it. So finally I got up and answered the Soviet delegate who happened to be the same Soviet delegate we have been answering ever since, Mr. Vishinsky. We stayed until nearly 2 o'clock in the morning and we won the vote, and people were not returned against their will. That has come up for discussion in every single meeting of the General Assembly since and we have always won the vote. That was my first experience and I assure you it frightened my own delegation more than it frightened anyone else, because they were so afraid the woman they had named was going to do very badly. So I tell you that to show you that when a woman is given work to do she is not doing it just for herself, she is doing it to establish the fact that all women can do a piece of work. Therefore it's very important that women are well trained for any work they undertake, and that they do not undertake any work until they themselves are sure that they know about the work they're going to do, and that they can keep learning so that they will be able to meet whatever is required by that work. I emphasize that because I have served on our delegation ever since that first meeting of the General Assembly, longer than anyone else in our delegation. The others have come in later, or they have missed meetings. I am the one person who has never missed a meeting, and I know more people probably in other delegations and more background on what happened in the past and what may happen than most of the other members. We usually have two women in our delegation. Usually we have an alternate who serves on some committee and gets a little of the knowledge that comes to us all in the great opportunity we have in the UN for meeting people from other countries and getting to know a little about their problems, the things that they are interested in and the things that affect them in their lives and in their homes.

Now in the spring of 1946 after the General Assembly was over and when all the machinery of the UN began to be organized, the Economic and Social Council named a preparatory commission. They called it a "nuclear commission," to consider the question of how a permanent commission on human rights should be set up, how the members should be named, how many members there should be and what their work should be. The Economic and Social Council named me as one of the members of that commission what met in New York in the spring of 1946 in temporary quarters at Hunter College.

Well, I was elected chairman of that preparatory commission—why I don't know, because I was never particularly good at parliamentary law but I found that using common sense was a good idea and somehow we got through that first meeting quite well.

We had some funny experiences because everything was new to everybody. Nobody knew much about what they were to do. We made up our minds, however, in that first meeting that we would have the same number of members on the Human Rights Commission that there were on the Economic and Social Council—18 members. We decided the members must represent different areas of the world, so that they wouldn't represent just one state, but the whole area from which they came. We also said that the members should be chosen—that one would elect a state to be a member and that the state would name its representative. That has been going on ever since. The big powers are nearly always remained and the smaller powers are rotated just as they are on the Economic and Social Council. They decided that the work we should do would be to write a charter of human rights. Now in the Charter of the United Nations it is carefully stated how important these rights are and it was because of this that the Economic and Social Council felt that a more elaborate detailing of these rights was necessary. When we came to our next meeting I had been named by the United States as the United States member of the Human Rights Commission and again I was elected chairman. I served as chairman of the Human Rights Commission until last spring in Geneva. Before that meeting I made up my mind that it was not right for the United States, a great power, to hold the chairmanship of that committee indefinitely. I thought I had held it long enough, and I thought the United States had an obligation to see that other nations, particularly the smaller nations, should have an opportunity to be chairman of a commission which had importance and offered great prestige. So I asked my State Department to take no steps to have me renominated and I said I wanted to nominate Dr. Charles Malik of Lebanon because Dr. Charles Malik has been chairman of a number of committees and commissions. He's a very fine person and I felt he would do a very good piece of work as an individual, so I nominated him for the chairmanship last April. He was a very good chairman of our session and I hope I shall have the pleasure of nominating him again in the coming meeting this April in New York. I hope he will be again unanimously elected because it is a good thing to have someone serve for two or three sessions because you get through certain work in that time and the continuity of knowledge is valuable.

In our very first meeting we made up our minds that just as in various countries there had been written declarations of human rights and then laws had been passed in those countries making those rights legal, we would probably have to do two things: We would have to write a declaration which would state the aspirations of people as regards human rights, and probably we would have to have a second document because the declaration, though it would state the aspirations, would not carry any binding legal obligation on any nation. The nations which accepted it in Paris in the General Assembly on December 10, 1948, passed a resolution in which they said, "We promise to acquaint our people with this document, this universal Declaration of Human Rights and we will strive to attain the standards set down in this declaration." But there was nothing in the declaration that said you, because you've accepted this, are obligated to change your laws. So we decided we would have to write a second document and that document would have to be in the form of a treaty and it would put in legal, binding form the rights which we could so formulate and any nation accepting thos rights would be obligated to change their laws if in any way their laws did not conform with this international undertaking. Being in the form of a treaty, this document will have to be ratified by every nation, as treaties are ratified, before it will have value in every country. Now that's very difficult and it's taken us a long time.

At the last General Assembly, by a very small vote, it was decided that we would write two covenants instead of one.7 In the first covenant we would put the civil and political rights—the right to take part in your government, the right to vote, the right for every individual to be tried fairly in a court of law, and a great many other civil and political rights of people which require the passage and observance of a law. The second document was to be written and presented at the same time, because all of us recognize that economic and social rights are as important and as valuable as civil and political rights. But nevertheless, they require not just the passage of a law. They require also very often the financial ability of a nation to actually do the things they've undertaken to do. For instance, in those rights is the right of everyone to an education. If you say everyone has a right to free primary education, everyone has a right to free secondary education, everyone has a right to free higher education, you have incurred a financial obligation for your country, and many countries at the present time are not able to meet that financial obligation nor are they actually ready to meet other requirements. For instance, many countries will have to build schools. They haven't got enough schools for the school population. They will have to build universities, medical schools, law schools, and technical schools. They will have to build the physical properties that go with the ability to give this kind of education. In addition many countries will have to train teachers in all those areas and there are many countries that are not prepared immediately to do that. It will take five years or more perhaps before they are ready. Therefore they would not be able to sign one covenant if it contained all these economic and social rights. For instance one of the economic and social rights is, all people have a right to health. That always seemed to me rather badly worded because I don't see how you can give all people the right to health. I think you can give them the right to conditions in which health may be obtained, but I have always felt that that was not well not worded. However, that's the way they decided to word it and I think it will take some time before all countries of the world will be able to build up public health services, sanitary services, which actually will give all people the right or the opportunity to stay healthy. It would mean, for instance, that you would wipe out all malaria. I'm just giving you a few examples of what it would mean. You would wipe out all malaria; you would wipe out every system of water supply which was not absolutely clean. People would not be able to use any water supply which was not safe and clean because that is one of the essentials to health. So you see it's going to take a little while to actually bring about the conditions in which economic and social rights can be accepted.

Those of us who wanted two documents felt that we should not hold up those rights which people could immediately achieve. By putting into one document all the rights, I don't think it was always understood, and I think that was one reason why we had such a difficult fight and such a narrow vote. Because they thought that most of us who were against one document were against it because we did not recognize the value of economic and social rights. Everyone of us does. I, for instance, know only too well that to have a vote is not important if you can't have enough bread to eat. You must be able to eat to make your vote valuable to you. But I also know that if you have a vote, your government will try much harder to find ways to give you bread or to see that you have the opportunity to earn your bread. Therefore it seems important to me that you should not delay one right because for the time being you cannot honestly say that you can give all the rights at the same time, and that is the reason why I am glad that we were told in the last General Assembly to write two simultaneous documents.

Everyone who can accept all those rights at the same time will be able to sign and ratify both covenants, but those who have to delay on the economic and social rights will have no excuse for delaying on the civil and political rights. Therefore I think it is important because in the civil and political rights there is one right that to me is very essential because of my own country and the necessity for us to realize that as part of the family of nations one thing must be recognized by all nations, namely that no rights can exist unless they exist without any discrimination, unless every human being is entitled to those rights. In the civil and political rights, it is stated that all these rights apply to everyone without distinction as to race or color or creed. For me that's very important. It will of course be repeated in the economic and social rights, but I think it's one of the very important things, and for that reason I would not like to see the civil and political rights delayed while nations are finding how they can accomplish the economic and social rights.

I've only given you examples of how this really is expected to work. There are a great many more provisions of course, but I'm not going into all of them. But I hope that you will get the declaration if you haven't already read through it. It's now translated into Indonesian. And I hope that you will really see that people study the declaration. We hope to finish the two covenants in this next meeting which begins on April 14. That's one reason why I wasn't able to accept the invitation of the Indonesian Government to spend two weeks in Indonesia and lecture in different places, because I must be home by the first of April and go down to Washington and discuss what position the United States will take on the important questions that are coming up.

I think you might be interested in one thing which is going to come up. In the last meeting of Committee Three there was a resolution passed that there should be included an article that should say all people have the right to self-determination. The United States believes that all people ought to have a right to self-determination, but we are not quite sure that an article worded just that way is sufficient because we are not sure that there should not be some qualification. Should you have self-determination before you are really fit for self-determination? And how should the distinction be made? It seems to me that somehow we should qualify that the UN must have something to say—it shouldn't be the interested governments, but the UN should have some qualification as to the time when peoples are ready for self-government. An article that simply says that all people have a right to self-determination, I don't think safeguards sufficiently the actual working out of the right of people to govern themselves. Because it might well be that if a people took that right before they were ready, they might get rid of the domination of one person but if they couldn't manage for themselves, somebody else might well step in. So it might be necessary for the UN to have some kind of safeguard around that. Now we are obligated to put that statement into the covenant—all people have a right to selfdetermination, but I rather hope that the General Assembly may accept some condition of what procedure shall be followed in granting that right. That will take a long discussion in the General Assembly next autumn. I hope that we will get through writing the two covenants in which we have eight weeks to do the work. That will take us through to the middle of June when we will have the two covenants go to the Economic and Social Council for consideration. They will be reported to the next General Assembly, after which those countries which accept them will have to ratify them as they would ratify any other treaty. So I ask warmly that you study what is done and know what your country must decide eventually in this regard.

Now I have told you some of the actual work of the commission. A great many people think that the commission is a court. Of course it isn't a court. It can't take special cases and decide them, so we're trying to find a way in which eventually, under the covenant, cases can be taken up and settled. But there are cases all over the world of violations of human rights and it will be a very good thing, I think, when machinery can be set up to hear cases and to actually take action on them. Petitions come in all the time to the Human Rights Commission but we have no authority to do anything about any individual case and therefore those petitions are noted and occasionally read, but nothing can be done until the covenants actually are accepted. I think I should tell you a little bit more about the role that women play today in the UN. They've played a constantly increasing role because more women have been named by different countries and they come and they are good delegates. That means that more will come—they come as advisers, very often as experts in their delegation, and that's a very important role to play. And I think it's a very great education to serve in any capacity in the UN because you do get an opportunity to meet people from many countries. If you're interested, you get an opportunity to talk with them, to find out something about their countries, and it stimulates your own desire to see with your own eyes—to learn more. Perhaps the best thing it does is to make you realize how little you know. That's one of the things that I have learned. I never come away from a meeting without having learned something new and without a greater appreciation of how much I need to learn. I think one feels the same way when one has the opportunity to go and look at things with one's own eyes. One gets impressions and at first one looks with the background of one's own country and then, little by little, one is able to look with the eyes of the people in the country where one is. That makes a very great difference and it gives you an opportunity to begin to appreciate how people think in the various countries of the world. That's very valuable to those of us who do work in the UN.

I have always felt that one of the great mistakes that the United States made, since we have the UN in our country, is that we so often entertain people in New York City. Few of us live there. We simply work there. We entertain visitors in hotels, and they go to endless cocktail parties. Most people don't like cocktail parties (I hate cocktail parties) and the result is that they get the idea that hotels represent United States life. I keep saying to my delegation, "For heaven's sake let's try to have some people in our own homes." Occasionally I try to have picnics. Most people in the world don't like picnics as much as we do in the United States, so I'm not always sure that the people who come have a good time. But it's about the only way that I can give them any kind of contact with my home. So I ask them to come to Hyde Park, which is about 75 miles away from New York, up a lovely parkway. They see the house and the library which my husband gave to the government, and they have a picnic in my little cottage or on the grounds with me.

I wish that a great many of us did much more bringing people into our own homes, because all over the world I find that there are two ways that other peoples know the people of the United States. They know us either through the films, which are made in Hollywood and don't represent the way we live at all, or they know us by having come to New York to the UN and having gone to endless cocktail parties. I just don't think that's representative of life in the United States. I think the sooner we start really acquainting people with what we are like and how the country lives, the better we will be understood and our interests will be understood and the more we will know about other peoples in the world.

In closing I'd like to say one thing. The people of the United States have been very busy opening up their own country, getting the things that they wanted, and they've given very little thought to the rest of the world. It shouldn't be that way, but that's the way it has happened. Now, quite suddenly, new inventions have drawn the world closer together and suddenly the people of the United States are told: "Your interests are affected by what happens all over the world. Some day you will realize that when something happens in Asia it affects you in the United States." At first our people couldn't understand it at all—they didn't think it affected them in the least. And they weren't very interested.

Remember once that I made a plea in my column for some aid for children somewhere in the world. I got several letters from women saying, "Why do you ask us to do something about children somewhere else? Don't you know that we haven't got everything we want for our own children, and therefore, you should be asking us to do something right here." And I answered that, unfortunately, there are things that we still have to do at home--a great many things. But what happens in other parts of the world is going to affect what happens here and therefore we have to take an interest in other parts of the world. But that's hard for our people to understand, and it's going to take time, and it's going to take patience. Often people in other parts of the world are going to be suspicious of us and they're not going to like us very much because they don't understand us. They're going to think we have no manners, and they're going to think we are rude and that we are overriding and that we are boastful. They're not going to understand right away that we really are generous and not too sure of ourselves when we go out in other parts of the world. Perhaps sometimes we are a little uncertain as to what we should do and we lack understanding of what the customs and habits of other peoples and other nations really are. That will take time and patience on everybody's part.

So in closing I would ask you to realize that on the whole the people of the United States want peace as you do. They want a chance to go on developing their own country, but they are gradually learning that they have an interest all over the world. I would ask you to have patience with us. I will ask you also to come and really try to see us at home- -you'll like us better. And I hope that we will have greater opportunity to come and see you because the more we come together I think the better we will all get on in understanding. And that is the way I hope we will gain a peaceful world.