A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Mary Ann Glendon (Random House, $38.95, 333 pages)

Mary Ann Glendon, a professor of law at Harvard, leader of the Holy See’s delegation to the Beijing Women’s Conference and usually one of the clearest thinkers on the issue of human rights, has penned a fascinating but ultimately disappointing account of the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in A World Made New.

Somewhat misleading because the subtitle highlights Eleanor Roosevelt, the books offers a detailed narrative about the principle players in the UDHR’s creation and adoption using largely unexplored primary sources including the memoirs and diaries of participants and the recently opened archives of the former Soviet Union. Thus we find that although Roosevelt’s deft political instincts were necessary to get the Declaration passed, it was mostly the work of three intellectuals – Lebanese Christian Charles Malik, Chinese scholar Pengchun Chang and French lawyer Rene Cassin.

One of Glendon’s stated aims is to rescue Roosevelt from the negative reputation she has developed, especially among conservatives, in the past half century. While the story is fascinatingly told, she ultimately fails to resurrect Roosevelt’s reputation. That’s because more important than the mechanics of how the UDHR came into being is its consequences and the philosophical grounding on which human rights are based. On this, Glendon disappoints.

Exploring whether rights are universal despite the many cultures that make up our planet’s population, Glendon never really recognizes the truth that human rights are prior rights, that is, they are not established by the state but rather that the state must acknowledge and respect certain rights because their source is the transcendent dignity of the human person created by God.