The story of American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) critical role in ensuring that protecting human rights would be in the United Nations Charter is told in Making a Difference: AJC's Advocacy for Human Rights in the United Nations Charter, published today on the 75th anniversary of the signing of the charter.

Authored by Felice Gaer, Director of AJC's Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights (JBI), the report details AJC efforts, led by AJC President Judge Joseph Proskauer and Jacob Blaustein, Chair of AJC’s Executive Committee, to ensure that the preeminent multilateral organization to emerge from the ashes of the Holocaust would have human rights at its core.

“On this milestone anniversary, it is important to recall AJC’s longstanding commitment to the idea of universal human rights and to promoting American leadership in pursuit of their realization,” said Gaer. “The incredible achievement of the UN Charter is not only a testament to AJC’s effectiveness, but also to the enduring resonance of the values that have informed our advocacy for decades.”

In the years preceding the 1945 San Francisco Conference where the UN Charter was finalized and signed, AJC brought American civil society leaders together in support of the idea that multilateral cooperation to protect human rights worldwide was essential if the horrors of the Second World War were to be prevented from recurring.

Meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in March 1945, Proskauer and Blaustein stressed that Jews had been the principal victims of Hitler's persecution and that AJC sought “to establish a world order that is just to every human being, irrespective of race, creed, or nationality” through the work of the UN and the concept of human rights.

Soon after that critical meeting, Roosevelt, seeking to ensure broad popular support for the new world organization, invited AJC and other non-governmental organizations to come to San Francisco to work with the official U.S. delegation to the conference. These NGO representatives, called “consultants,” engaged with the U.S. delegation on a number of issues, especially on the need to ensure that human rights would be a central purpose of the UN, and a body dedicated to addressing human rights would be created.

AJC’s consultants, Proskauer and Blaustein, played a decisive role in persuading the American delegation to seek key human rights-related amendments to the draft UN Charter. Proskauer warned Secretary of State Edward Stettinius that the NGO consultants, and thus the American people, would not support U.S. Senate ratification of the UN Charter if the U.S. delegation did not at least advocate for the human rights amendments, regardless of the risk of failure. With the U.S taking the lead among all 50 countries participating in the San Francisco conference, the consultants’ proposals on human rights were incorporated in the UN Charter signed on June 26, 1945.

Columbia University Professor James Shotwell, then America’s foremost expert on international organizations, who participated in the San Francisco conference, later recalled that AJC leaders did “the major and strenuous part of the thinking” that led to the human rights provisions in the UN Charter. William Korey, author of the authoritative study NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, similarly concluded that the “historic breakthrough” at San Francisco “never would have taken place without the commitment, determination and pressure of a group of American NGOs,” citing Proskauer and Blaustein as the “sparkplugs” whose initiative was decisive.

The impact of this achievement was profound.  

The UN Commission on Human Rights, which the consultants insisted the Charter mention by name, drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948, as well as the core international human rights treaties. UN human rights mechanisms that succeeded them, while imperfect, have provided essential protection for the human rights of millions of people worldwide in the decades since.

Moreover, AJC’s advocacy at San Francisco was an early indication of the potential impact of thoughtful NGO engagement on U.S. foreign policy and at the international level. 

“AJC’s work at the San Francisco conference impacted the lives of countless victims of human rights atrocities and abuses who have been aided by the world’s recognition that individuals can be the subject of international law, and of international concern,” said Gaer. “While much more needs to be done to achieve the protection of human rights, we should acknowledge our appreciation of the timely and effective advocacy of Joseph Proskauer, Jacob Blaustein and the other NGO consultants in San Francisco who made the issue of respect for the human rights of all persons into one of the prominent outcomes not just of the UN founding conference, but of the twentieth century itself.”

Making a Difference: AJC's Advocacy for Human Rights in the United Nations Charter is available here.

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