Letters to the Contrary
A Curated History of the UNESCO Human Rights Survey
Edited and Introduced by Mark Goodale, Foreword by Samuel Moyn


Contents and Abstracts
History: UNESCO in the Paradigmatic Transition
chapter abstract

The volume's first expository chapter provides a detailed history of the UNESCO human rights survey. The chapter describes the origins of the survey; its development under the leadership of Julian Huxley and Jacques Havet; its conclusion in 1948; and its later rediscovery by human rights historians in the late 1990s. The chapter also situates the UNESCO human rights survey within the broader history of human rights and the history of the early postwar years more generally. Finally, the chapter discusses the UNESCO human rights process in relation to narratives, or myths, about important values like universality and shows how these narratives have been constructed within ideological currents at the center of human rights scholarship and activism.

Interpretations: From a "Hollow Sham" to a "Plurality of Cultural Values"
chapter abstract

The volume's second expository chapter provides an interpretative framework for understanding the dozens of essays, letters, and memoranda about the UNESCO human rights survey that are published in the chapters, many for the first time. The chapter describes the logic behind the volume's internal organization and the criteria through which the clusters of essays and letters were chosen. These clusters cover topics such as liberalism, history, socialism, technology, duties, and freedoms.

Memorandum and Questionnaire Circulated by UNESCO on the Theoretical Bases of the Rights of Man
chapter abstract

Chapter 3 reproduces the memorandum and cover letter that UNESCO sent to many people and institutions around the world asking them to reflect on the question of human rights so that UNESCO could write a report to be used by the UN Human Rights Commission.

The Grounds of an International Declaration of Human Rights
chapter abstract

The volume's final chapter reproduces the official report sent on behalf of the UNESCO Committee of Experts to the UN Commission on Human Rights based on the 2-year human rights survey. Although the report did not carry authorial attribution, it was written by Richard McKeon, one of the committee members. The approach taken in the report largely reflects his own perspectives on human rights, perspectives that are found in his individual essay on human rights, which appears in Chapter Five.

Foreword and Introduction to Human Rights, Comments and Interpretations, UNESCO 1949
chapter abstract

Chapter 6 reproduces that Foreword and Introduction to the volume that UNESCO published in 1949 based on the 1947-1948 human rights survey. The Foreword was written by Jacques Havet and the Introduction by Jacques Maritain. The 1949 UNESCO publication was the basis for our historical understanding of the UNESCO human rights survey until the publication of the current volume.

Liberalism from the Ashes
chapter abstract

These seven selections represent the responses to the UNESCO survey that make the clearest and strongest arguments in support of an "International Bill of Rights." It is not surprising that there is close overlap between McKeon's individual submission and the report that was sent to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), since McKeon was its principal author. It is also important to note that with the exception of the Brazilian Carneiro, all the "pro-UDHR" essays were written by Americans and were based in orthodox arguments derived from liberalism. Nevertheless, despite the language in the report to the CHR, only 12% of the essays received could be said to clearly support the form and structure of what became the UDHR.

Beyond Egotistic Man: Communist, Socialist, and Social Democratic Challenges
chapter abstract

The essays in this thematic cluster directly challenge the idea of human rights, particularly in the liberal form that eventually was codified in the UDHR. The authors in this section come from a range of national backgrounds—U.K., U.S., Belgium, U.S.S.R., Sweden, Canada—and they offer as an alternative to human rights various programs for global social change and peace based in Marxist, socialist, social democratic, and trade union ideologies. It is notable that three members of the UNESCO committee itself (Laski, Somerhausen, and Carr, the committee chair) wrote essays deeply critical and even dismissive of the project of human rights. And this grouping of human rights skeptics even includes Frank R. Scott, who was a close friend and McGill law faculty colleague of John P. Humphrey, the real "father" of the UDHR. Numerically, this cluster contains the largest number of responses to the UNESCO survey.

Rights in a Sacred Universe
chapter abstract

A smaller number of the essays in response to the survey do not directly challenge the idea of human rights per se, but rather take issue with an overly-humanist or liberal grounding. These essays, including the individual one by the author of the Introduction, Jacques Maritain, emphasize the spiritual origins of all rights and duties and invoke the divine to greater or lesser degrees. The extent to which these essays can be reconciled with the largely liberal-secular UDHR varies. It is notable that all of the essays in this section were written by Catholic scholars or theologians.

The Universal Declaration of Human Duties
chapter abstract

An interesting grouping of responses challenges the project of human rights on the basis that duties, not rights, should form the foundation of an international declaration. The authors in this section make this argument from a range of positions; indeed, Gandhi's famous response, written from a moving train a few months before his assassination, can hardly be seen to make a formal argument as such. Nevertheless, his letter has been used and misused for various purposes by scholars and it is included here because if it does contain a perspective, it is that duties, and not rights, are the elemental bonds of society.

The Technological Society of the Future
chapter abstract

A surprising finding of this study is the fact that during this period many people looked to science and technology as the source of transformative insights about basic questions of war, peace, politics, and morality, this despite the fact that rapid developments in science had made possible the development of the two bombs that were used by the U.S. against Japan at the end of the war (actions that would be classified as "crimes against humanity" according to current definitions). Several respondents to the UNESCO survey offer scientific approaches as an alternative to human rights as the basis for the new world order.

Universal Human Rights in a Colonial World
chapter abstract

This grouping of responses represents the most significant challenge to the orthodox history of the UNESCO committee and its meaning for broader questions of human rights universality and legitimacy. Two of these authors (Kabir and Puntambekar) were solicited by Huxley as a way to broaden the inquiry beyond Europe and the Americas. The two others are essays on how human rights relate to colonial and "primitive" (i.e., indigenous) peoples. But the responses of Kabir and Puntambekar, despite their titles, do not make arguments for how human rights are consistent with either the Islamic or Hindu traditions; rather, they appear to be the authors' attempts to demonstrate that even a Moslem or Hindu can support a conventional, liberal, conception of human rights. These two misrepresented responses, plus Lo's from Chapter 8, are what have been taken as evidence that responses to the UNESCO survey "poured in" from around the world.

Human Rights as History and Practice
chapter abstract

This cluster of responses comprises the most important—in terms of number and significance—along with the grouping of communist, socialist, and social democratic challenges. These responses are more varied in tone and background, but what they share in common is the fact that they reject human rights as a legacy of natural law and natural rights. Each, in its own way, argues for the role of history, contingency, and politics in the understanding of rights and duties within society. Some of the essays propose an essentially cultural approach to the question of human rights; others are more skeptical and argue that the historical record does not lend support for the effort to draft yet another bill of rights as the foundation for the postwar settlement.

Specific Freedoms
chapter abstract

Several of the respondents to the UNESCO survey analyze (or argue for) specific freedoms rather than a declaration of human rights as such. This grouping includes the only submission by a woman out of the 57, a powerful mini-treatise on prisoners as a "limiting case" for human rights by the 73-year-old English prison reformer Margery Fry. Also included is an idiosyncratic essay on children's rights by the Hungarian scientist Albert Szent-Györgyi, winner of the 1937 Nobel Prize in medicine (for his discovery of Vitamin C).

From Repudiation to the Play of Fancy
chapter abstract

The final cluster of responses to the UNESCO survey, which includes a number of letters and substantive refusals, is both the most literary and difficult to sort analytically. This is perhaps not surprising given that the grouping contains several previously unknown contributions from respondents who were at the time world famous writers and artists, including Arnold Schoenberg, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Herbert Read, and Morris L. Ernst, the founder of the ACLU. I describe their responses as the play of fancy since what they produced has little connection to either the documents circulated by UNESCO or the question of human rights more generally. At the same time, this cluster features the most sustained and systematic repudiation of what became the UDHR, the essay by the American anthropologist Melville Herskovits, which was the contribution that stimulated my own intellectual interest in the UNESCO, as explained in the General Introduction.