Presidents' Day

| February 16, 2024

This Presidents’ Day I am chucking precedent and recognizing the achievements of Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1945, President Harry Truman appointed the former first lady to the United States delegation to the newly created United Nations. She then became the chair of the U.N. Commission on Human rights the following April.

During the preceding decades, the totalitarian ideologies of communism and fascism had caused the death of countless millions. Liberating soldiers at the end of World War II documented the horror of the Nazi death camps and the great nations of Eastern Europe found themselves on the wrong side of what Winston Churchill named the Iron Curtain. The fascists were defeated, but liberal democracy remained in peril. It was under these conditions that Roosevelt committed herself to a standard for human rights that applied to all people, regardless of where they lived or who their parents were.

Roosevelt faced fierce opposition from the Soviet Union as she pushed for the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Both the Nazis and the Leninists had used hate-speech laws to outlaw free speech and suppress dissent. Danish free-speech expert Jacob Mchangama recounts how “the Soviet position regarded Western capitalism and democracy as a manifestation of fascism and therefore the advocacy of such ideas should be prohibited as incitement to hatred.”  The “Soviet Union and its allies not only wanted to permit states to ban hate speech but oblige them to do so.” The Soviet constitution of 1936 forbade “any advocacy of racial or national exclusiveness or hatred and contempt.” *

Roosevelt did not believe that any nation or any power had the right to deny the dignity inherent in all people. She understood that the Soviets wished to suppress dissident speech in Russia and in their newly acquired territories. The citizens of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria, and other occupied states could be charged with hate crimes for rejecting communist subjugation. Just as Vladimir Putin is labeling freedom fighters in Ukraine today as fascists, the Soviets craved the right to condemn their subjugated citizens who loved democracy and demanded freedom of conscience.

On December 10, 1948, 48 of 58 UN members voted in favor of the UDHR and no country voted against it. The entire declaration is a triumph for human rights and human dignity, I wish to highlight Article 19, which states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” **

The rights enshrined in the UDHR are under attack around the world today. Journalists languish in prison and free societies are under military assault or threatened assault. Yet, the UDHR remains, and we have the example of Eleanor Roosevelt’s dogged determination and ultimate success to inspire us. The full text is at Universal Declaration of Human Rights | United Nations. I urge those who have never read it to take a few minutes to savor Mrs. Roosevelt’s lasting achievement. Those who have already read it can read it again. I have read it many times and I shall again this weekend.

Happy Presidents’ Day everyone!

* Mchangama, Jacob. 2022. Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media. New York, United States of America: Basic Books.

** Accessed 02.13.2024.