"The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt," published in 1961, is still a good read. She was an amazing woman. More recent First Ladies have also written good autobiographies - Michelle Obama ("Becoming," 2018) and Hillary Clinton ("What Happened," 2017) - but it's worthwhile going back and learning more about the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Perhaps the most amazing accomplishment of Eleanor Roosevelt was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a list of fundamental rights that every human on the planet should enjoy. Its unanimous adoption by the United Nations in 1948 was in large measure due to her hard work and leadership.
She was chair of the UN Committee that wrote the Declaration and it was she who got the entire United Nations to ratify it. The day before the final vote (48-0), she told the General Assembly: "We stand on the threshold of a great event, both in the life of the United Nations and of mankind."
The Declaration declared that it was to be applicable across all cultures, political systems and religious traditions. It was a thoroughly secular product, written without religious references and adopted by governments in the name of man, not God.
Eight countries abstained on the final vote: the Soviet Union, five Soviet bloc states, South Africa and Saudi Arabia. The Soviets argued that the Declaration favored individual over collective rights and undermined national sovereignty. South Africa complained about the clause condemning racial discrimination. Saudi Arabia claimed that it was not consistent with Islamic law, especially the statement affirming a right to change religion.
However, the foreign minister of Pakistan, Sir Zafrulla Khan, said, "It is my opinion that our Pakistan delegate has misinterpreted the Koran. I understand the Koran to say, 'He who can believe shall believe; he who cannot believe shall disbelieve; the only unforgivable sin is to be a hypocrite.' I shall vote for acceptance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
The delegate from Saudi Arabia said he was quite sure King Ibn Saud would not agree to this interpretation of the Koran.
Princeton University professor Robert George, a conservative Christian thinker, has said that "it is a defamation of Islam to suppose that it cannot embrace a concept of human dignity like we have in the (Universal) Declaration." Many Muslim scholars in Pakistan and elsewhere agree.
Here are some of the basic human rights we all have, according to the Declaration:
• All human beings are born free and equal.
• No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
• No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
• Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial.
• Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
• Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
• Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief.
• The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage.
• Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
• Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
These rights may seem noncontroversial today, but the United States still falls short of the calls for equal pay for equal work, universal health care and universal suffrage. More than 70 years after its adoption by the UN, it's about time we make sure we comply with all of these Universal Rights.
James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota's Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills and probate in the Lake County area, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or jamesmanahan.com.