How 20th-century debates reveal enduring tensions at the core of the human rights project.
In 1947 and 1948, the bold and controversial first Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Julian Huxley, together with Jacques Havet, the young first head of UNESCO’s philosophy sub-section, took steps that were intended to shape the conceptual framework of what became the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. During these years, UNESCO put in motion an extraordinary process that was meant to reveal a cross-cultural consensus on the basic philosophical and ethical principles upon which a new global social contract should be based. This process—which involved soliciting opinions on the question of human rights by notables such as T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Gandhi—took place independently of the much more public one that unfolded somewhat later under the auspices of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights (CHR), which was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt.
UNESCO put in motion an extraordinary process that was meant to reveal a cross-cultural consensus on the basic philosophical and ethical principles upon which a new global social contract should be based.
The work of UNESCO on human rights during this period, the debates surrounding its conflicts with the CHR, the specific results of the cross-cultural survey it undertook, and the broader implications of this survey for the meanings and legitimacy of human rights, were all lost to a history that was dominated by the geopolitical logics of the Cold War. Nevertheless, new research has revisited the UNESCO human rights survey in light of ongoing debates over what a recent volume by Hopgood, Snyder, and Vinjamuri has described as “human rights futures”: the possibilities for and limitations to human rights among the contemporary disorder and violence that Samuel Moyn calls the “neoliberal maelstrom.”