Letters to the Contrary

Since its adoption in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has served as the foundation for the protection of human rights around the world. Historians and human rights scholars have claimed that the UDHR was influenced by UNESCO’s 1947-48 global survey of intellectuals, theologians, and cultural and political leaders, a survey that supposedly revealed a truly universal consensus on human rights. This book provides a curated history of the UNESCO human rights survey and demonstrates its relevance to contemporary debates over the origins, legitimacy, and universality of human rights.

Based on meticulous archival research, Letters to the Contrary revises and enlarges the conventional understanding of UNESCO’s human rights survey. Mark Goodale’s extensive archival research uncovers a historical record filled with letters and responses that were omitted, polite refusals to respond, and outright rejections of the universal human rights ideal. This volume collects these neglected survey responses, including letters by T. S. Eliot, Mahatma Gandhi, W. H. Auden, and other important artists and thinkers.

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In collecting, annotating, and analyzing these responses, Goodale reveals an alternative history that is deeply connected to the ongoing life of human rights in the twenty-first century. This history demonstrates that the UNESCO human rights survey was much less than supposed, but also much more. In many ways, the intellectual struggles, moral questions, and ideological doubts among the different participants who both organized and responded to the survey reveal a strikingly critical and contemporary orientation, raising similar questions at the center of current debates surrounding human rights scholarship and practice.

“Goodale’s superb reconstruction of the history surrounding the UNESCO-sponsored survey of human rights demonstrates perfectly the political and contingent nature of the origins of the international human rights enterprise. It reveals both the centrality of philosophy to that enterprise, and the virtual impossibility of seeking a conception of human rights that is universal in philosophical analysis rather than political compromise.”

Philip Alston, New York University School of Law

“Human rights might survive our age of rupture if we cease to delude ourselves with myth-making about their historical origins. In this outstanding book, Mark Goodale shows unequivocally that the creation moment of ‘the age of rights’ was in no sense universal at all. Letters to the Contrary makes it impossible to defend the triumphalist vision of the postwar human rights story with the blithe assertion that everybody agreed human rights were now the only game in town.”

Stephen Hopgood, SOAS, University of London

“All international human rights lawyers concerned with the universality of human rights should read this book. Mark Goodale reveals how human rights comparison and distinction, not identification of a common denominator, were at the core of the UNESCO human rights survey and the resulting examination of the grounds of an international declaration of human rights. Rediscovering a differentiated and culturally sensitive philosophical discussion of human rights is not only humbling, it allows us to hope for reinvigorated universal debate.”

Samantha Besson, University of Fribourg