Co-winner of the International Geneva Awards 2017 - Mark Goodale
For this article "The Myth of Universality: The UNESCO “Philosophers’ Committee” and the Making of Human Rights"
The International Geneva Award (IGC Award) has been established to encourage outstanding research scientists to produce publications that are particularly relevant for International Organisations (IOs). The Award is a prestigious academic distinction specifically created to promote links between Swiss academics and International Geneva. The Award will be given to the three best papers published on a subject related to international studies and especially useful from the perspective of international organisation.
The SNIS considers that international studies deal not only with the analysis of international relations, but also with political, economic, social, environmental, legal, and health issues that extend beyond national boundaries. Submitted papers can deal with a wide range of academic disciplines, such as political science, economics, sociology, social and cultural anthropology, law, history, geography, environmental sciences, and related areas.
This article examines one of the most important developments in the history of human rights: the debates over human rights universality that took place between UNESCO and the Commission on Human Rights during the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1947 and 1948. Based on new archival research, the article presents for the first time a revised history of this key episode in international relations. Beyond implications for our understanding of human rights, the role of Western institutions, and cultural diversity, the article provides an alternative understanding of how the early post-war international world was constructed. What this research shows is that the international system was very much an “unsettled firmament” with different perspectives on which institutions in the UN system should play which roles in rebuilding the post-war world. In fact, how this firmament eventually settled was very much ad hoc and dependent on circumstances. In other words, the international system could have developed otherwise, which holds lessons for the future.
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.
par Joëlle de Magalhaes