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Letters to the Contrary: A Curated History of the UNESCO Human Rights Survey
Since its adoption in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has served as the foundation for the protection of human rights around the world. Historians and human rights scholars have claimed that the UDHR was influenced by UNESCO's 1947-48 global survey of intellectuals, theologians, and cultural and political leaders, a survey that supposedly revealed a truly universal consensus on human rights. This book provides a curated history of the UNESCO human rights survey and demonstrates its relevance to contemporary debates over the origins, legitimacy, and universality of human rights. Based on meticulous archival research, Letters to the Contrary revises and enlarges the conventional understanding of UNESCO's human rights survey. Mark Goodale's extensive archival research uncovers a historical record filled with letters and responses that were omitted, polite refusals to respond, and outright rejections of the universal human rights ideal. This volume collects these neglected survey responses, including letters by T.S. Eliot, Mahatma Gandhi, W. H. Auden, and other important artists and thinkers. In collecting, annotating, and analyzing these responses, Goodale reveals an alternative history that is deeply connected to the ongoing life of human rights in the twenty-first century. This history demonstrates that the UNESCO human rights survey was much less than supposed, but also much more. In many ways, the intellectual struggles, moral questions, and ideological doubts among the different participants who both organized and responded to the survey reveal a strikingly critical and contemporary orientation, begging similar questions at the center of current debates surrounding human rights scholarship and practice.
(** Co-winner of the 2017 International Geneva Award.) This article reexamines one of the most enduring questions in the comparative intellectual, legal, and ethical history of human rights: the question of human rights universality. By the end of the first decade of the post-Cold War, debates around the legitimacy and origins of human rights took on new urgency, as human rights emerged as an increasingly influential rubric in international law, transnational development policy, social activism, and ethical discourse. At stake in these debates, which unfolded in various spheres of academia, diplomacy, and political organizing, was the fundamental status of human rights itself. Based in part on new archival research, this article offers an alternative interpretation of an important moment in the debates over human rights universality during this period: the rediscovery by scholars in the late-1990s of a 1947 survey undertaken by UNESCO, which purported to demonstrate the fact of human rights universality through empirical evidence. The article argues that this contested intellectual history reflects the enduring importance of the “myth of universality”—a key cultural narrative that we continue to tell ourselves, about ourselves, as a way to find meaning across the long, dark night of history.