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Human Rights: Back to the Future



In 1947 and 1948, UNESCO conducted a worldwide survey of a diverse group of intellectuals, political leaders, theologians, social activists and other personalities to gather their opinions on the philosophical foundations of human rights. A survey that was not widely publicized at the time, but one that is surprisingly relevant today.
Back to the Future
October-December 2018
The UNESCO Courier October-December 2018
Back to the Future
Poster by Brazilian designer
Eduardo Soares Gomes, exhibited
at the Culture Counts competition,
organized by UNESCO to mark
the International Year for the
Rapprochement of Cultures, 2010.
© Eduardo Soares Gomes
Wide angle
Wide angle
The UNESCO Courier October-December 2018
To understand the background of
the international system during this
period, it is important not to read the
history of these early years through
the lens of much later developments.
Re-reading those formative years with
what I have called a “period eye” allows
us to appreciate the extent to which the
international system – including UNESCO
– existed on a shifting landscape, an
unsettled rmament that would continue
to be in motion to a greater or lesser
degree over the succeeding decades.
Mark Goodale
In 1947 and 1948, UNESCO
conducted a worldwide
survey of a diverse group of
intellectuals, political leaders,
theologians, social activists
and other personalities to
gather their opinions on the
philosophical foundations of
human rights. A survey that was
not widely publicized at the
time, but one that is surprisingly
relevant today.
The international system that was
created in the aftermath of the Second
World War took time to emerge. This is,
of course, true institutionally – agencies
had to be created, headquarters had to
be built, sta and leadership positions
had to be lled. The diculties with this
“practical” aspect of the new post-war
order should not be underestimated.
For example, during its rst twelve years,
the headquarters of UNESCO were
located in the Hotel Majestic in Paris’s
arrondissement, where bedrooms
and bathrooms were used for oces
and closets and bath-tubs were used to
But the complications were even greater
at the political level. Although the general
outlines of the relationships between
the various international agencies were
spelled out in charters and constitutions,
the actual interactions between these
organizations were ambiguous, to say the
least, in those early years.
Seventy-year-old views
that remain
Such a perspective is particularly
pertinent in the area of human rights.
The embryonic international community
faced two main problems in 1945. The
rst was how to organize itself in a world
devastated by global war and shaped
by the contours of colonialism. Would
Realpolitik continue to prevail – in a
world in which national sovereignty and
interests were paramount – or would a
new, egalitarian model be created, one
that would redistribute power along new
political and geographic lines?
Children of United Nations sta
members in New York take a close look
at the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights, two years after it was adopted on
10December 1948.
© UN Photo
Wide angle
The UNESCO Courier October-December 2018
It was not entirely clear what would be
needed for this “faith in fundamental
human rights” to take more concrete
forms. As the answer to the rst question
suggests, the powerful members at
the core of the new UN system were
reluctant to create any structure that
could pose a threat – however abstract
– to their political and legal prerogatives.
Nevertheless, there was sucient support
for what United States president, Harry
Truman, described as an “international
bill of rights” that the UN Economic and
Social Council (ECOSOC) created an
international Commission on Human
Rights (CHR) in 1946, with eighteen
members and with Eleanor Roosevelt
asits chair.
Even so, the actual procedure through
which the CHR was supposed to produce
a bill of human rights was left open. More
specically, it was not at all clear in 1946
how the CHR would establish the moral,
religious and philosophical principles
on which such a bill of human rights
should be based. It was clear that they
should be universal and not privilege
any one national, regional, or cultural
tradition. But where were such principles
to befound?
An unprecedented
It was at this moment that UNESCO
boldly entered the picture. It should
be remembered that Julian Huxley, the
controversial and charismatic rst Director-
General of UNESCO, had written a sixty-
page blueprint for the new Organization,
titled UNESCO: Its Purpose and its
Philosophy (1946). In it, Huxley makes
the argument that a special international
agency was needed in order to help the
world overcome its many divisions.
Huxley believed that this only would
take place if what he called a “world
philosophy” could be developed through
cultural understanding, education,
and scientic collaboration. For
Huxley, UNESCO was to be this unique
international agency, charged with
overseeing the emergence of what he
described as a “single world culture, with
its own philosophy and background
It was not surprising, therefore, that
the proceedings of the rst UNESCO
General Conference in Paris took place
in this spirit of visionary activism for the
The creation of the United Nations
Security Council was the answer to the
rst question. Not only would the UN
system be one in which the nation-state
would continue to play a foundational
role; it would be a system that both
reected and legitimated the fact that
certain countries were more powerful
than others.
The second question was related to the
rst, but was even more complicated.
Given the horrors that had been
unleashed during the recent global
conict – horrors that followed only two
decades after the unprecedented carnage
and destruction of the First World War
– what kind of moral statement could
the international community make that
would adequately express its collective
outrage and hope, however utopian, for
abetter future?
The answer, or the beginning of the
answer to the second question, was to
be found in the 1945 UN Charter, which
examined the ravages of genocide and
imperial militarism and nevertheless
“rearm[ed] faith in fundamental human
rights [and] in the dignity and worth of
the human person.
Rights and freedoms don’t seem to
me to exist on the universal scale (…).
Thevery words cannot be interchanged
internationally without ambiguity and
misunderstanding (…). I am inclined
to think that there is only one problem
which is fundamental – the cause and
cure of sadism and aggressiveness –
and that until we have done something
about this problem, it is merely futile to
discuss human rights. At present we are,
in a collective sense, savages, and not
entitled to any human rights…
Herbert Read (1893-1968)
British art historian, philosopher and poet
UNESCO survey, 1947-48
The UNESCO Courier October-December 2018
Working with a sense of urgency – since
they worried that UNESCO’s human rights
activities would be overshadowed by the
much more high-prole labours of the
CHR under Roosevelt – Huxley and Havet
got right to work to design a procedure.
After several false starts, they decided
to do something unprecedented – to
conduct a global survey among a diverse
group of intellectuals, political leaders,
theologians, social activists and others,
in order to establish the philosophical
principles of human rights.
To do this, they prepared two documents
– the rst, an aide-mémoire, which
provided a short history of national
human rights declarations and outlined
the important stakes involved in drafting
an international declaration; and second,
a list of specic human rights and
freedoms that respondents were asked to
consider in their replies.
In March and April 1947, between 150 to
170 of these surveys were dispatched to
an impressive list of social institutions,
state organizations, and individuals.
Around sixty responses were eventually
received by UNESCO – they were not
nearly as comprehensive as accounts
of the process described, either at the
time, or decades later. Nevertheless, the
UNESCO human rights survey managed
to capture a spectrum of viewpoints on
the question of human rights that was
arguably wider and more diverse than
that produced by the CHR.
The verdict
Under Havet’s supervision, UNESCO
convened an experts committee in
Paris in late June 1947 to evaluate the
responses and produce a report to be
sent to the CHR, so that it could use
UNESCO’s ndings as the basis for the
eventual human rights declaration.
Apart from electing Huxley as its rst
head, UNESCO also established a number
of major priorities for the coming year.
One of these instructed the Secretariat
to “clarify the principles on which might
be founded a modern declaration of the
Rights of Man” [Records of the General
Conference, rst session, 1946, p.236].
This was precisely the mandate that
Huxley needed. In his view, a decisive
intervention in the eld of human rights
would quickly establish UNESCO as the
leading UN agency, the fulcrum of the
post-war international system, with a
unique role as the guardian of what he
called a “unifying and unied” global
The unit within UNESCO that was
responsible for carrying out this mandate
was the philosophy subsection of what
was in the beginning the Subcommission
on Philosophy and Humanistic Studies.
It was headed by a young French
philosopher, Jacques Havet, who had
recently published a well-received book
on Kant (Kant et le problème du temps,
1947). Havet would go on to play a key
role in UNESCO’s rst human rights
project, although the extent of his
inuence was not known until recently.
Detail from the Camouage installation
on the windows of an abandoned
electricity power plant in Rijeka, Croatia,
2016, by the Spanish artist, Pejac. It is
atribute to Belgian artist René Magritte.
Wide angle
The UNESCO Courier October-December 2018
As scholars, international ocials,
and activists struggle to reassert the
legitimacy of human rights in the face
of contemporary challenges such as
resurgent nationalism, the weakening
of the European Union, and especially
global inequality, the UNESCO human
rights survey is proving to be an
extraordinary, if unexpected, resource
for new perspectives as well as, at least
potentially, new solutions.
Professor of Cultural and Social
Anthropology and Director of the
Laboratory of Cultural and Social
Anthropology (LACS) at the University of
Lausanne, Switzerland, Mark Goodale
(United States) is the editor of the
Stanford Studies in Human Rights series
and the author or editor of thirteen
volumes, including Letters to the Contrary :
A Curated History of the UNESCO Human
Rights Survey (Stanford, 2018). This book
analyses dozens of recently discovered
documents about UNESCO’s activities in
the field of human rights during the first
two years of the Organization’s existence,
thus expanding and revising the general
history of human rights.
Theexperts committee – E. H. Carr
(chair), Richard McKeon (rapporteur),
PierreAuger, Georges Friedmann,
ÉtienneGilson, Harold Laski (see p.13),
Luc Somerhausen, and Lo Chung-Shu
(see p. 30) – debated the survey results
and sent its conclusions to the CHR in
August 1947. At the same time, they
discussed the possibility of publishing
some of the survey’s responses, which
became the basis for the UNESCO
volume, Human Rights: Comments and
Interpretations (1949).
Meanwhile, throughout most of 1947,
there was much confusion among the
dierent UN states about just which
agency was responsible for drafting the
human rights declaration. Both Huxley
and Havet had suggested that UNESCO
was undertaking the survey as either the
leading institution, or, at the least, in close
collaboration with the CHR. Yet, when
UNESCO’s report was nally considered
by the CHR, in a closed session in Geneva
in December 1947, it was met with
confusion, and even anger.
Apparently the majority of the CHR
members had no idea that UNESCO was
undertaking such a survey. In the end, by
a vote of 8 to 4 (with one abstention), the
CHR decided not to distribute UNESCO’s
report to its member states or include
it as part of the drafting process that
would eventually lead to the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
Lessons for the future
Yet, in spite of the fact that the UNESCO
human rights survey of 1947-1948 did
not serve its original purposes, it remains
strikingly relevant today. The responses
oer a unique window into the diversity
of thinking about basic issues of human
dignity, society, and rights and duties,
among many others, in the period before
the UDHR codied a much more limited
understanding of the Rights of Man.
As recent research on the survey
demonstrates, the ability to rewind the
history of human rights back to this
transitional post-war era has given us an
unexpected treasure-trove of ideas at a
moment in time in which the status of
human rights is as threatened as ever.
Fragile, a poster by Greek designer
Dimitris Arvanitis, one of the
participants in the One for all, all for
one! competition organized in 2018 by
4tomorrow, to celebrate the seventieth
anniversary of the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights.
© posterfortomorrow 2018 - Dimitris Arvanitis
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