UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Organisation


Irene Oh

Irene Oh is an Assistant Professor of Ethics in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Miami, Florida.
She is currently working on a book, The Rights of God: Islam and Human Rights, which examines the thought of contemporary Islamic scholars on democracy, toleration, and freedom of conscience.
Professor Oh has recently been selected to participate in a roundtable on human rights at Humboldt Universität, and has presented her work at the American Society for the Study of Islamic Studies and the American Academy of Religion.
Her current research is on the role of philosophers and theologians in the creation of the UDHR. Professor Oh received her PhD in 2004 at the University of Virginia and her MA at the University of Chicago.
“The Philosophers’ Committee: Universalism and Diversity”

My research looks into the history of the Philosophers’ Committee that UNESCO established in 1946 as part of its mandate to promote understanding among diverse traditions (1). I am interested specifically in the Committee’s discussions concerning philosophical and religious diversity, which led eventually to the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948).

Research into the history of the UDHR indicates that much consideration was given to the inclusion of “non-Western” voices. Archived UNESCO documents indicate that the instigators of the UDHR expressed a self-consciousness of Western bias. The Philosophers’ Committee sent out queries to thinkers, philosophers, religious leaders, and politicians from non-Western, non-Christian cultures. They corresponded with the likes of Gandhi and Nehru, as well as representatives from nations in Asia and South America. Additionally, representatives from nations across the globe asserted their opinions with regard to various articles in drafting committees as well as in the larger General Assembly meetings. When the UDHR was first officially formulated in 1948, it provided an initial grounding for the articulation of human rights across cultures.

While the self-awareness and inclusive intent of the Philosophers’ Committee was laudable, it was nonetheless a creature of its time. Although non-Western, non-Christian, and women’s voices were welcome, they constituted a minority of active participants in the drafting of the UDHR. The majority of those involved with the project were American or Western European, highly educated men (the notable exception to sex being the leader of the Human Rights effort, Eleanor Roosevelt). Indian philosopher Jinnu Krishnamurti expressed concern that the Committee focused too heavily on lofty ideals that were of interest primarily to wealthy and powerful first world nations and that it failed to address sufficiently the most basic needs of the majority of the world’s population. He suggested that UNESCO might want to concentrate their efforts towards “what ninety-nine percent of the human race want—food, shelter, a secure family life and to be left in peace by bosses and busybodies. Unfortunately the one percent who are interested in power and ideals and ideologies are the ones who call the tune.”(2)
The concerns expressed by Krishnamurti spoke directly to the majority of the world’s peoples, who did not and still do not possess the cultural, political, or economic power wielded by the contributors to the UDHR. Some thinkers, such as the poet T.S. Eliot, believed that the overall effort to find common values was likely to prove “futile” and the consequences perhaps even “mischievous.”(3)

Despite the flaws and obstacles visible with historical hindsight, the Philosophers’ Committee led a remarkable charge. Indeed, the spirit and intellectual generosity of the committee are still much needed today. The concerted effort of activists, scholars, and leaders to find shared values, while acknowledging their diverse backgrounds, should serve as a model for our future endeavors.
(1)See, Memorandum dated 12 September 1947, UNESCO “Committee of Experts to consider a UNESCO Programme in the Field of Philosophy and Humanistic Studies,” Part VI: Enquiries into Cultural Characteristics For International Understanding.

(2) Letter to J. Havet, dated 21 April 1947.

(3) Letter to Julian Huxley, dated 18 April 1947.

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