Published online by Cambridge University Press: 27 December 2018
This article reexamines one of the most enduring questions in the history of human rights: the question of human rights universality. By the end of the first decade after the end of the 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 was the fundamental status of human rights. Based in part on new archival research, this article offers an alternative interpretation of the rediscovery by scholars in the late 1990s of a 1947 UNESCO survey that purported to demonstrate the universality of human rights 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 use to find meaning across the long, dark night of history.