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



This project began its life as a mystery. In October 2005, I found myself amongst a group of junior scholars meeting in Berlin under the auspices of the Irmgard Coninx Stiftung, a small private foundation that had been created in 2001 in order to organize a set of yearly roundtables on the theme of transnationality. The 2005 meeting was dedicated to the problem of reframing human rights. Although the meeting was formally interdisciplinary, most of the participants came from the fields of political theory, philosophy, international relations, and law. Around an actual oversized roundtable, the thirty-five attendees engaged in several days of spirited and sometimes heated debate over highly abstract problems such as the relationship between human rights and collective goals, implementation versus universality, human rights and cosmopolitan justice, the idea of imaginary global communities, and arguments for a nonreligious grounding for human rights in a pluralistic world.

I was the only anthropologist at the meeting. It was clear that both the organizers and the other participants expected me to dutifully fill the anthropological slot by providing timely reminders of real-world human rights conflicts so that the proper thinkers around the table would have something more than arid philosophical categories to work with. Nevertheless, it was during these encounters that I learned that a concept like “normativity” could be deployed to certain effect when the ethnographer’s magic begins to wear off.

After one particularly long and grueling exchange on the question of the universality of human rights had continued into the hallways, I confronted a razor-sharp political theorist. I had been working for several years on the anthropology of human rights, a nascent specialty within the wider discipline that focuses on empirical research into what one volume describes as “culture and rights” (Cowan, Dembour, and Wilson 2001). The idea was to conduct ethnographic studies on human rights practices in different parts of the world in order to understand more about the possibilities and tensions within what Kofi Annan (2000) described as the “age of human rights,” that is, the first decade and a half after the end of the Cold War, during which the “last utopia” (Moyn 2010) became a powerful force in global politics, international law, and socioeconomic development.

I explained that the growing database of anthropological research challenged claims for the universality of human rights. Moreover, I said, the problem of cultural diversity had been anticipated even before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948. As part of my wider interest in anthropology and human rights at the time, I was editing a major special issue of American Anthropologist entitled “Anthropology and Human Rights in a New Key.” During the research for this special issue, I had learned about something called the “Statement on Human Rights,” a document that claimed to have been “submitted to the Commission on Human Rights, United Nations by the Executive Board, American Anthropological Association” in 1947 when it was published in the late-1947 number of American Anthropologist. As I put it to the political theorist, the collective body of anthropological data did not support the assertion of human rights universality even in 1947 (as the Statement on Human Rights had emphasized) and the more recent ethnography of human rights had done nothing to change this conclusion.

The political theorist regarded me with a look that seemed to indicate that he had a definitive, if surprising, answer to these objections: “But what about the UNESCO Philosophers’ Committee?” I paused for a moment as I desperately searched my internal mental files, a search that came up painfully empty. With a heavy if nervous skepticism that I hoped would check his advance, I asked, “what UNESCO Philosophers’ Committee?” He smiled and triumphantly explained that UNESCO had conducted a global survey on human rights in order to support the work of the Commission on Human Rights, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. Although it was not well-known (as my own ignorance demonstrated), UNESCO’s survey had proven that the underlying principles of human rights, principles that would later be codified in the UDHR, were in fact (not just in theory) universal, meaning that they were present within all the world’s cultures and belief systems despite the apparent surface diversity at which anthropologists had been scratching.

This was quite a stunning claim, and I asked the political theorist for his sources. He referred me to one volume: Mary Ann Glendon’s recently published A World Made New, which I later learned included a chapter on this mysterious UNESCO “Philosophers’ Committee.” Once I turned to this chapter in Glendon’s book, the question then became what her sources were for the discussion of this committee, whose world-historical findings on human rights universality would figure so prominently at different moments in what was otherwise a landmark study of Eleanor Roosevelt. Glendon’s primary source, as it turned out, was a book entitled Human Rights: Comments and Interpretations, published by UNESCO in 1949 with an introduction by the French Catholic natural rights philosopher Jacques Maritain. And that 1949 UNESCO publication did, indeed, reveal more information about a certain UNESCO process that had taken place during the drafting of the UDHR: a survey that had been undertaken, responses that had been received, and a consensus on general human rights principles that had supposedly been uncovered through the survey.

Yet these discoveries only deepened the mystery, since even a cursory reading of the 1949 UNESCO publication raised more questions than it answered: How was this survey conducted? Who authorized it? What kinds of questions were asked? To whom was the survey sent? How many surveys were sent and how many responses were received? What criteria were used in the analysis of the responses? Did the UN Commission on Human Rights (CHR) authorize UNESCO to conduct the survey? Did the CHR consider the report written by UNESCO based on this survey? And, perhaps most important, did the findings of the UNESCO survey “prove” the universality of human rights despite the various critiques, including those included in the 1947 “Statement on Human Rights”? Very little had been written about the UNESCO human rights survey and by 2005, almost all references led back to Glendon’s 2001 book, which was based on the elusive 1949 UNESCO publication. Without knowing more about both the circumstances that had given rise to the UNESCO survey and the specific details of UNESCO’s work on human rights, it was impossible to answer these underlying questions.

Since I am an anthropologist and not a historian, I would have normally left this admittedly important historical puzzle aside to focus on more pressing contemporary ethnographic problems, particularly since the “age of human rights” was unfolding with such methodologically challenging intensity. Yet in a case of intellectual historical serendipity, it turned out that I was destined to pursue the case of the UNESCO survey further. For an early historical chapter in a book I was working on throughout 2007, a book on anthropology and human rights, I needed to know more about the Statement on Human Rights. During research in the United States National Anthropological Archives in Suitland, Maryland, I came across correspondence from 1947 between the Executive Committee of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and one anthropologist, Melville Herskovits, in which Herskovits writes to the AAA president (Clyde Kluckhohn), “here is the draft of the statement I sent to the UNESCO Committee, revised in accordance with the idea that it would be forwarded to the Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations, from the Association” (US National Anthropological Archives, Presidential Correspondence, Box 2, 1947).

This meant that the Statement on Human Rights, with which I was very familiar, and the UNESCO human rights survey, with which (as we have seen) I was not, were in fact connected. This came as yet an additional surprise, since by this time I had written extensively about anthropology and human rights, and Herskovits’s statement was not mentioned at all in UNESCO 1949. Yet I still could not bring myself to commit to the historical detective work that was clearly necessary in order to solve the enigma of the UNESCO human rights survey and thus Herskovits’s (and by extension the AAA’s, and by even further extension, anthropology’s) connection with it. Even Mary Ann Glendon, in a personal communication, had acknowledged that even though “there is so little material to go on . . . the important thing is to figure out what really happened in that committee.”

In the end, professional circumstances allowed me to figure out what really happened in that committee. This is not to say that every detail is now known, or that every important question can be answered. Indeed, given what has come before, a heavy dose of historical humility is called for, especially since, as I have learned, historical research is as much about establishing what cannot be known (for practical, if not epistemological reasons) as it is about establishing what is known. Nevertheless, over the course of several years, research was conducted in three important archives for the project: the UNESCO archives in Paris; the special collections of the University of Chicago Library (which hold the papers of Richard McKeon, an important protagonist); and the Woodson Research Center in the Fondren Library at Rice University in Houston, Texas (which houses the Julian Huxley papers). This volume is the result of this research.

Structure of this Volume

Given the centrality of UNESCO 1949 to debates taking place decades later over the UNESCO human rights survey of 1947–1948, the contents of the 1949 publication form the foundation for what appears here. Indeed, since UNESCO 1949 is so difficult to locate, either in its original British (Allan Wingate) or American (Columbia University Press) edition or in the 1973 Greenwood Press reprint, the publication of a new edition limited to the original contents would be easy to justify. UNESCO 1949 contains 35 separate entries: an introduction by Jacques Maritain; an uncredited foreword that was written by (and credited here to) Jacques Havet, the head of UNESCO’s philosophy section at the time of the survey; 30 responses to the UNESCO survey on human rights; 1 commissioned essay on the “conception of the rights of man in the U.S.S.R.” by the Soviet legal scholar Boris Tchechko (for which he was paid); a copy of the survey and accompanying memorandum on human rights distributed by UNESCO; and a report based on the findings of the survey sent by UNESCO to the UNCHR in August 1947. All of these entries are included in the current volume.

In the course of finding out “what really happened” during the UNESCO survey, however, a much wider collection of relevant sources was located in the archives. These include 22 additional responses to the survey; 1 submission (by Emmanuel Mounier) that was a reprint of an essay written in 1945; and, perhaps most surprisingly, a set of substantive refusals to formally respond to the UNESCO survey, which constitute important contributions to the question of human rights in their own right. I have only included the most interesting and consequential of these refusals, since the archives contain many other letters, telegrams, and other forms of correspondence that likewise refuse the invitation but for logistical reasons such as time, preexisting professional commitments, or confusion over the goals and methods of the project.

The various sources reproduced in this volume, both those that appeared in UNESCO 1949 and those that were discovered in the archives, have been relatively lightly annotated. I have retained most of the original footnotes as well as the varying composition styles that appear in the original. Abridgments have been kept to a minimum, since part of the rationale for this volume is to present the full body of materials related to the UNESCO human rights survey. Nevertheless, for reasons of economy, a few selections, including those of Merriam, Dutt, Blaha, Hessen, and Tchechko, have been somewhat abridged. Moreover, some of the chapters in UNESCO 1949 use ellipses, which suggests that some minor editing had already been done by the UNESCO Committee in 1947 and 1948, prior to publication. In order to distinguish between original footnotes and editorial additions new to this volume, the abbreviation “ed.” is used to indicate the latter. Finally, considerable effort has been made to include biographical notes on all the contributors to the volume, even though many of them (including Gandhi, Eliot, Auden, Aldous Huxley, Schoenberg, and Nehru) will be well-known to readers.

In addition to the original sources, the volume includes two expository chapters. The first is a detailed history of the UNESCO human rights survey within the broader context of the history of human rights in the years and decades after the Second World War and the creation of the United Nations. The second explains the organizational and interpretive logic behind the clustering of sources in Part III. Although a basic purpose of this volume is to provide, for the first time, the full range of materials associated with the UNESCO human rights survey so that others may come to their own conclusions about its meaning, interpretation, and historical significance, the volume’s second expository chapter does explain why it is implausible to argue that the UNESCO survey demonstrated the universality of human rights.

The volume concludes with a note on sources, describing the current state of research on the UNESCO survey and the role of various archives in this history, as a guide to future research.

Understanding the UNESCO Survey Through A "Period Eye"

The process of revealing the richness, complexity, and ultimate ambiguity in the UNESCO human rights survey has reinforced the importance of understanding it—and the history of human rights more generally—through what the British art historian Michael Baxandall (1972) calls a “period eye.” Baxandall argues that one must develop the capacity for comprehending paintings and other forms of art by learning how they would have been perceived and appreciated in their own terms and times. The reason for adopting a “period eye” is to avoid imposing later—often much later—standards and expectations on works of art that were created against the backdrop of very different aesthetic, cultural, and historical conditions.

Working through the primary sources around the UNESCO survey, it is striking to what extent the proposal for a new “declaration of the rights of man” was regarded with skepticism, confusion, even incredulity. While important actors and institutions were certainly committed to liberal human rights as the primary legal, political, and moral response to the horrors of the Holocaust and world war, many others, particularly those on the left, viewed human rights as a framework firmly rooted in the late eighteenth century and therefore long since obsolete. As Morris L. Ernst, cofounder of the American Civil Liberties Union, put it in his refusal to formally respond to the UNESCO survey, “It seems to me that we are finished with the era of passing general resolutions in regard to liberty and freedom” (see his entry in Part III, in “From Repudiation to the Play of Fancy”).

The period during which the UNESCO survey was undertaken, early 1947 to late 1948, was a time in which many proposals for the postwar order were being developed. These proposals were influenced by a range of currents and ideologies, not all of which were complementary. The discussions around human rights at the time took place within a swirl of debate and contention that involved widespread support for Soviet and socialist projects; a belief in the progressive aspects and dominance of technology; and the often conservative retreat into the certainties of religious faith and institutions. It is important to understand this liminal postwar but pre-UDHR period as one in which the idea of human rights was associated by its critics with a small cluster of Western national traditions (notably the American and French); viewed as the unmistakable normative underpinning of capitalism; and held in a certain disdain by many intellectuals, who regarded the “rights of man”—much as Jeremy Bentham had a hundred and fifty years earlier—as pernicious, since their metaphysical abstractness seduced people into ignoring other, more concrete, approaches to solving social and economic problems. In describing this relatively short period of about two years as a prehistory, it is not my intention to assign undue importance to the ratification of the UDHR in the broader historiography of human rights. Rather, it is to underscore the fact that at the time, at least for certain key actors and institutions in Europe and the United States, these months in which a declaration of human rights was being developed were seen as an important moment in the wider economic, political, and legal reconstruction of a fractured world.

Yet developing a period eye is not only necessary for gaining a fresh perspective on this critical moment when the UNESCO human rights survey took place, in the year and a half before the adoption of the UDHR in December 1948. It is also necessary in order to better appreciate how and why the UNESCO survey was interpreted in particular ways by scholars decades later. By the time the UNESCO survey was rediscovered by a small group of historians of human rights in the late 1990s, the geopolitical, ideological, and cultural background conditions had changed dramatically. With human rights (humanity’s “last utopia” [Moyn 2010]) under increasing pressure from Asian intellectuals and politicians and postcolonial critics, among others, the findings of the UNESCO survey seemed to provide a conclusive rebuttal to charges that the expanding post–Cold War human rights movement was based on Western norms. As the two expository chapters explain in more detail, this was the charged broader context in which the UNESCO human rights survey was often used as a trump card in debates over universality, cultural relativism, and the status of Western human rights activism.

Conclusion: Rewinding the History of Human Rights

If the rediscovery of the UNESCO survey in the 1990s took place during a time of both a rapid expansion of human rights activism and a growing critique of this transformative mode of contemporary world-making, the publication of this volume takes place during yet a different moment in the wider history of human rights. The promotion of the UNESCO human rights survey as a refutation of charges of Western-centrism was simply one aspect of a broader current of optimism bordering on triumphalism, for many scholars as much as for politicians, international aid workers, and social movement activists. This was a time in which history had apparently ended, with the triple pillars of late liberalism—capitalism, democracy, and human rights—the sole remaining foundations on which societies could be reinforced or rebuilt. It is striking how strong the belief was in the inevitability of human rights, at least until the early 2000s, when a series of international turning points—the attacks of September 11, 2001; the launch of the so-called War on Terror; the rise of the global security state; the revelation that torture was an accepted practice among well-established Western powers—marked, in retrospect, the beginning of the end of the “age of human rights.”

During the debates that took place in the mid-1990s over the question of “Asian values,” for example, Aryeh Neier, one of the founders of Human Rights Watch, engaged in a lively series of exchanges with the Singaporean ambassador, Bilahari Kausikan (Neier 1993). At one level, this was a high-stakes international debate over universalism, relativism, historical contingency, and whether or not, as Kausikan put it, the “extent and exercise of rights and freedoms is a product of the historical experiences of particular peoples” (1995, 265). But at another level, this was a debate about whether or not global politics was converging around a well-defined set of norms. Neier, for his part, was willing to concede that different cultural and national traditions interpreted human rights in different ways. Yet what was never in doubt was the fact that a global culture of human rights would continue to take root as part of the broader process of globalization. If Neier could readily dismiss Kausikan’s arguments for Asian values as a sophisticated attempt to rationalize authoritarian political practices, he did so believing that time was ultimately on the side of human rights, that a culture of human rights would eventually become so persuasive that the very idea of cultural difference itself would be rendered meaningless.

From the perspective of 2017, however, the “age of human rights” seems increasingly distant. Instead, we confront a period characterized by a widespread “backlash” (Venice Academy of Human Rights 2016) against human rights; a time in which the “rise and fall” (Allen 2013) of human rights has led to disenchantment and even hopelessness; and the realization that “we are living through the endtimes of the civilizing mission,” a period of closure caused not by “transient misfortunes but [by] fatal structural defects in international humanism” (Hopgood 2013, 1). If the status of human rights was already “unsettled” as of June 2001 (Sarat and Kearns 2001), by 2017, with a Donald Trump presidency, the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union, and the strengthening of nationalism and identitarian politics in many parts of the world, it is clear that “the prospect of one world under secular human rights law is receding” (Hopgood 2013, 1) faster than ever.

Thus it is with a sense of some urgency that this volume, despite its idiosyncrasy, appears at this moment of crisis in the broader history of human rights. What, we might ask, is the precise nature of the “structural defects” at the core of the human rights project? If they are indeed structural, this would imply that the problem—now and in the future—is not merely political: not merely an issue of the failure of implementation, bad faith on the part of cynical state actors, institutional complexity, tensions between state sovereignty and international law, the obstructing hand of global capitalism, and so on.

Rather, if Hopgood and countless other contemporary critics—many from within the centers of “international humanism”—are right, the problems must be more basic; they must relate to how human rights are understood both conceptually and historically. In this sense, then, the sources in this volume offer us the ability to rewind the history of human rights back to an important moment when the basic concepts were still very much in flux and the first lines of the postwar story of human rights had not been written. Perhaps the rudiments of an alternative model of human rights are to be found among the diverse responses to the UNESCO survey and the surrounding debates, discussions, and various expressions of dissent.

References Cited

Allen, Lori A. 2013. The Rise and Fall of Human Rights: Cynicism and Politics in Occupied Palestine. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

American Anthropological Association. 1947. “Statement on Human Rights.” American Anthropologist 49(4): 539–43.

Annan, Kofi. 2000. “The Age of Human Rights.” In Project Syndicate.

Baxandall, Michael. 1972. Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style. Oxford: Clarendon.

Cowan, Jane, Marie-Bénédicte Dembour, and Richard A. Wilson, eds. 2001. Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Glendon, Mary Ann. 2001. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York: Random House.

Hopgood, Stephen. 2013. The Endtimes of Human Rights. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Kausikan, Bilahari. 1995. “An East Asian Approach to Human Rights.” The Buffalo Journal of International Law 2(2): 263–83.

Moyn, Samuel. 2010. The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Neier, Aryeh. 1993. “Asia’s Unacceptable Standard.” Foreign Policy 92(Autumn): 42–51.

Sarat, Austin and Thomas R. Kearns. 2001. “The Unsettled Status of Human Rights.” In Human Rights: Concepts, Contests, Contingencies, edited by Austin Sarat and Thomas R. Kearns, 1–24. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

UNESCO. 1949. Human Rights: Comments and Interpretations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Venice Academy of Human Rights. 2016. “Backlash Against Human Rights?” July 4–13.