Could we do more to secure human rights?

Over five years on from the end of the Second World War, with the atrocities committed, including genocide, a word used for the first time during the Nuremberg Trials, already fading from the minds of the general public, here was a panel of representatives who had human rights, what those constituted, how they could be defined, recognised and secured, very much at the forefront of their minds.

70 years ago this year, Could we do more to secure human rights? was the question discussed by a panel of some of the leading human rights thinkers of the mid 20th century. Unfortunately the programme is no longer available to hear, so in this post we explore its’ background and ask is the time right for a similar discussion now?

‘Could we do more to secure human rights?’ was the 200th programme in a weekly round table radio discussion series called London Forum broadcast on 29th April 1951, 70 years ago this year. It was first on the BBC General Overseas Service, and later repeated in July on the BBC Home Service.

Eleanor Roosevelt with UDHR

The issue of human rights was discussed by what we would now regard as a stellar panel, with Eleanor Roosevelt, who had overseen the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in America sitting alongside David Maxwell Fyfe, one of two of the artisans of the European Convention.

With them were two Nobel Prize winners, Bertrand Russell whose Literature Prize had been awarded a year before in recognition of “significant writings championing humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought” and Lord John Boyd-Orr, whose 1949 Peace Prize was “for his lifelong effort to conquer hunger and want, thereby helping to remove a major cause of military conflict and war.”

They were joined by Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, the first women to serve as President of the Liberal party, who at the invitation of Churchill had been a founding member of the European Movement. With Maxwell Fyfe, she had been a delegate at the Conference of the Hague 1948, which sketched out the basis for a Council of Europe, which in turn, finally passed the draft European Convention.

The programme was chaired by Edgar Lustgarten, a former barrister turned broadcaster, and produced by Derek Holroyde, who later took his experience in world news to TV, producing programmes such as This Nation Tomorrow – which took ‘a hard look at the ideas that may shape our future.’

From the Radio Times July 13th 1951

All this we can learn from the Radio Times listings, which have survived. But how much more interesting it would be to hear the views expressed on that programme now. Over five years on from the end of the Second World War, with the atrocities committed, including genocide, a word used for the first time during the Nuremberg Trials, already fading from the minds of the general public, here was a panel of representatives who had human rights, what those constituted, how they could be defined, recognised and secured, very much at the forefront of their minds.

One of Eleanor Roosevelt’s syndicated ‘My Day’ columns

As we can learn from Eleanor Roosevelt’s syndicated My Day column, at the time the programme was recorded, she was shortly to spend five weeks in Geneva at the United Nations Human Rights Commission, where they were making tentative steps towards drafting an International Covenant on Human Rights, which would require signatories, in the same way as the European Convention, which had only been approved by the Council of Europe the summer before and ratified 5 months previously in Italy.

At fifty, David Maxwell Fyfe was by far the youngest member of the panel, whose combined ages came to over three hundred. Bertrand Russell was the oldest, at eighty, and was by this time world-famous outside the academic circles where he’d made his name, frequently the subject or author of magazine and newspaper articles, and called upon to offer opinions on a wide variety of subjects.

To have the voices of two women on a panel of five at that time, might be regarded as unusually well represented. Both came from political families – Violet Bonham Carter was the daughter of former Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith and had married his private secretary Maurice, by this time a leading figure in the British Liberal party in his own right. Eleanor Roosevelt was a niece of Theodore Rooselvelt (26th President of the United States) who had married her fifth cousin once removed F D Roosevelt, (who later became 32nd President). Before becoming First Lady she had her own distinguished career in political public life, and became the first presidential spouse to hold regular press conferences, holding her own sometimes controversial views, and making appearances on behalf of her husband. After his death in 1945 she continued her active political career until her death in 1962.

Like Maxwell Fyfe, John Boyd Orr had been a Scottish scholarship boy who had risen from humble beginnings to become (briefly) a serving MP and who was later elevated to the peerage. Both men chose Scottish titles – Baron Boyd Orr of Brechin Mearns, Viscount Kilmuir of Creich and came from families who were members of the Free Church of Scotland. It would be interesting to hear them in conversation over coffee before the recording.

Not to mention the programme itself. We can only guess at what was said. What a pity the BBC’s recycling zeal in the 1950s means those thoughts have been long taped over, and lost to us forever.

Is the moment ripe for a similar discussion now? And if so, who would be the panel today?

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