Conference on UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Conscience for the World

On February 7, 2012 The Roosevelt House house hosted a conference, in collaboration with the Jacob Blaustein Institute, to reflect on the development of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Jonathan Fanton opened the conference by discussing the importance of human rights to both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and to The Roosevelt House mission.  

February 7, 2012

It is my pleasure to welcome you to Hunter College and the historic homes of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and Franklin’s mother, Sara. We are pleased to collaborate with the Jacob Blaustein Institute in this conference to reflect on the accomplishments, disappointments and challenges of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Jacob Blaustein talked with FDR in 1945 about establishing a Commission on human rights and was an early advocate for creating the position of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

So it is appropriate that the Blaustein Institute sponsors this event and that it be held at Hunter in Roosevelt House. The committee that developed the Commission on Human Rights met at Hunter College in 1946. And its chair was Eleanor Roosevelt, who led the process of drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She served as the first US representative to the new Commission.

In a speech at the UN in 1958, she asked, “Where do universal human rights begin?” The answer: “In small places, close to home …., places when every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning … close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

We are in the home where Eleanor developed her social conscience, learned about people in poverty and need, came to understand that discrimination was real and pervasive. The passion and determination that we see in her leadership in framing the Universal Declaration and creating the Human Rights Commission came from conversations she had here with people like Lillian Wald and Mary McLeod Bethune, and experiences she had working with New York groups like the Women’s Trade Union League and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

So during your stay here walk around and feel the presence of Franklin and Eleanor, in Franklin’s private study on the second floor, in the dining room above us and in the second floor drawing room.

Franklin and Eleanor moved here in 1908 when Franklin’s mother, Sara, gave them one of two connected townhouses. Eleanor and Franklin lived in number 49 where you walked down to the auditorium which is the only new addition to the houses. This was their main home where they raised their family, where Franklin recuperated from polio, where they undertook their civic activities. Franklin also received news of his election as President here. After his 1932 victory, he made his first address to the nation as President-elect by the fireplace in the second floor drawing room. In his second floor study he recruited his Cabinet and shaped the New Deal. Frances Perkins recalled being recruited to the Cabinet in that study where he agreed to her condition that he create the Social Security system.

The houses are now the Roosevelt Public Policy Institute which offers two undergraduate programs, one in human rights, the other in domestic policy. The Institute is a place for Hunter faculty from different schools and departments to meet to work on policy research. And it offers a vigorous program of lectures and conferences, bringing policy makers and the public together to talk about critical issues of the day. Ban Ki-moon, Kofi Annan, and Luis Moreno Ocampo among others have spoken here in the past 18 months.

Human Rights and International Justice is a central theme for the Roosevelt Institute and I think Franklin and Eleanor, particularly Eleanor, would be pleased that you are here to discuss how the UN Human Rights system can be strengthened. As Eleanor said on December 9, 1948, “We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind … the approval by the General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights … This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.”

But she knew the road ahead would be long and challenging when she wrote in Foreign Affairs, “It [is] important that the Declaration be accepted by all member nations, not because they will immediately live up to all of its provisions, but because they ought to support the standards toward which all nations must henceforth aim.” She knew there was work to do and I know that both she and Jacob Blaustein would have been pleased to see the long overdue creation, in 1993, of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

And I was pleased to hear Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speak so forcefully about the Office of the Commissioner at a conference MacArthur co-sponsored last month on the Responsibility to Protect. The Secretary-General issued a clarion call to make 2012 the Year of Prevention. And he placed the work of the High Commissioner and the Commissions of Inquiry at the center of our collective determination to deter crimes against humanity with early documentation and exposure of human rights abuses.

We have gathered today in this historic house the people who can make a difference in strengthening the office of the High Commissioner. We are honored to have you meeting here with Eleanor and Franklin looking on.

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