First Ladies, First Principles, and Foundational Documents

Originally posted on March 5, 2014 at:

In 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt, former first lady, took examples of the dregs of history and aimed for a better ever after. With clarity, power, and consensus, she shepherded the creation and ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The resulting document has become the bedrock for international human rights work around the globe and across cultures.

With the help of representatives from the United States, Canada, China, Lebanon, France, India, Chile, Iran, Australia, the Philippines, and other nations, Roosevelt helped craft a text for all of humankind for all of time. The UDHR set a minimum bar for behavior by governments and a set of minimum obligations to its citizens and its non-citizens. It has been neglected by governments ever since, sometimes sporadically and sometimes systematically. Less than 5 percent of the world know it even existsand very few educated people take the time to read the entire document in entirety.

As the legal foundation of the international human rights movement, the document clearly needs help. Having been ignored for 67 years and with governments around the globe using it as political cover when they want it and suggesting that it doesn't work for them when they don't, it has fallen to global citizens rather than governments to do the work that nations wouldn't. In 1961, an Englishman and an Irishman, Peter Benenson and Sean MacBride, formed Amnesty International to put human rights on the tables and to keep them (and the failure of governments to respect them) in the spotlight so they couldn't be ignored so easily and entirely. More recently, the work of Navi Pillay has refocused more attention on the rights of women, of minorities, and of LGBT peoples in pressing for the universality of human rights contained and implied in the original UDHR and supporting documents.

As Americans, we might wonder why no subsequent first ladies have ever adopted the UDHR as their signature cause as Eleanor Roosevelt did. After all, for a nation that takes such pride in our own Constitution, can we not see the UDHR as being a Constitution for all of the planet? Eleanor's husband won a war but didn't live to see the peace. It was her who picked up the pieces to create standards for keeping peace. Since her, there have been no others that have taken a big picture small world approach to this issue. All of her antecedents have neglected Eleanor's lead and legacy. One would think that given the critical universal nature of human rights, that it would be duplicated by at least one of our first ladies. First ladies have taken up organic food, cultural preservation, education, health care, Burma, and childhood health among other causes. Shouldn't more attention be given to the foundational document of human rights that the rest proceed from? Hillary Clinton got close to Eleanor's courage when she said in China at the Beijing Women's Conference that "women's rights are human rights." But Hilary's full support of the George Bush war on Iraq quenched that fire. Michelle Obama has a law background and one would have thought this a natural segue for her, but it has not proven to be the case so far.

Look at the images of human rights failures and human misery. Napoleon's retreat from Russia and the US departure from Saigon are all part of a long history of pain considerably greater than the iconic images alone. Can't we begin building a stronger history of images of striving, of Eleanor's dream of human rights for all? A pivot to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a baseline for national policy both domestic and foreign? A real pivot to properly balance human rights with security? So far, ironically, security is winning attention over human rights more than theSeahawks won over the Broncos this January.

Edward Snowden was right in some of his declarations. We have lost far too much to allow government to run all over us and with only those under paychecks from and oaths of loyalty to the federal government to be watching (or trespassing) the boundaries. We as citizens (and many other governments) have nary the faintest outlines of how wide and deep and extensive the Security State has become in America. Surely this first family knows that torture and secret jails will hang like a stench on George Bush forever and that right now that drone attacks and secrecy may hang on this president. Wouldn't it be preferable to begin a pivot? Even if you dislike Snowden, the national conversations he has started with his disclosures are overdue and we have given away too much.

Legacy and imagery count in world affairs. The election of Pope Francis marks a pivot in the Catholic Church that has reverberated positively even for non-Catholics. Imagine what good we might accomplish if the United States were to pivot to try to peddle soft power, to push integrity, to push civil liberties, to push human rights, for all. The world would reap better dividends and think more positively about us than the focus on new weapons, the use of drones, the erosion of privacy, and the ethos of secrecy that has permeated our national culture and by extension the planet.

We should enter a new era by holding a White House Conference on Security and Human Rights and use the UDHR as the "white" paper to start the conversation. The world would breathe a little deeper and truly might be a little safer for all if that happened. Michelle's interest and support to educational priorities is helpful to Americans, but if she were to be interested in human rights and the UDHR , that would be helpful to the world. Both are needed and missing. Imagery counts. Symbolism counts. Eleanor's legacy should still speak to the world. With Michelle's dedication, her presence behind an American pivot could ensure that it continues to do so. Though the world may have good questions for the administration at-large, the first lady seems to be fully committed to the causes she embraces. We'd like to see her throw her formidable arms around the UDHR and for the world to pay attention. The United States needs to refocus attention on what matters. After nearly a decade and a half of eroding liberties and increasing militarism, a focus on human rights would be a good place to start. Michelle Obama is keenly positioned to take up the task, and it would be a fitting honor if we all took it up after her.