Exactly 70 years ago — on December 10, 1948, just after midnight — the United Nations General Assembly saw its first standing ovation for a single delegate. One by one, members representing 51 nations across the globe rose from their chairs to honor a 64–year-old woman seated among them.
Eleanor Roosevelt had just made history.
For the first time, the world had come together to agree, in writing, on the fundamental freedoms that belong to all people on earth. It was fittingly called the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Imagine an international Bill of Rights; in fact, that’s what some UN delegates called it before the official name was decided. And the former First Lady and widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt had been its driving force.
“We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind,” Roosevelt said in her speech at the Assembly. This Declaration may well become the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere.”
Indeed in the seven decades since its adoption, this Declaration — sometimes known by its acronym “UDHR” — has become the most translated document in the world, available in 500 languages. It serves as a moral guide for the UN and people around the world, and laid the legal groundwork for the International Criminal Court, the tribunals that prosecuted war crimes in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, and the national constitutions of nearly 20 countries.
And this declaration, like the UN itself, rose from the ashes of the deadliest war in human history.