< back

In the field of human rights and humanitarian law an important first step was the agreement to prosecute Nazi war criminals. The Charter for the Nuremberg Military Tribunal was agreed on 8 August 1945 by Britain, America, France and the Soviet Union. This radical and far-reaching document aimed to codify the rules of international law on war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Nuremberg Military Tribunal in session

The head of the American delegation was Robert Jackson, a Justice of the United States Supreme Court, who went on to be the Chief Prosecutor at Nuremberg. In his memoirs he described how British officials wanted to dispose of the six or seven leading Nazis without trial, fearing that an open trial would provide a sounding board for Nazi propaganda. But Roosevelt disagreed: according to Jackson he 'was determined that a speedy but fair trial should be accorded to war criminals. . . the President insisted that there be a documentation of their crimes'.

A few weeks later, a Commission on Human Rights was established at the United Nations. The American delegation was led by Eleanor Roosevelt, the recently widowed First Lady. Over the next few years she led efforts to negotiate what became the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in December 1948 by the UN General Assembly. It is arguably the single most important international instrument ever negotiated. She considered this text to be her finest accomplishment for its promotion of the values reflected in the US Constitution:

We wanted as many nations as possible to accept the fact that men, for one reason or another, were born free and equal in dignity and rights, that they were endowed with reason and conscience, and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. The way to do that was to find words that everyone would accept.

The Declaration set out the first ever code of basic human rights which would give effect to the United Nations' determination that' 'human rights should be protected by the rule of law'. It was a non-binding instrument, but it led directly to binding obligations and new instruments in Europe, the Americas and Africa. In 1966 many of its provisions were incorporated into two legally binding instruments of potentially global application, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights.