The end of the Second World War marked the start of a new era, with worldwide support for a Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in December 1948. By signing the Universal Declaration, the Member States of the United Nations pledged to promote a series of universal values. As part of the UN, UNESCO made a major effort to disseminate the Declaration and its content globally, at a national, regional and local level. The idea of “building peace in the minds of men and women” and encouraging equal rights was central to UNESCO’s mission. An archival exploration of the correspondence material of UNESCO’s secretariat, available at the UNESCO archives, offers an insight into the continuous struggle faced by the staff for the creation and implementation of educational initiatives on human rights.
One focus of UNESCO’s work was the area of fundamental education. Early general correspondence found related to this topic reveals the continuous flow of communication between the different UNESCO departments, especially the office of the Director-General and the Departments of Mass Communication and Education. The discussions were mainly centred on the development of centres for fundamental education. The location to choose, the content and methodology to use, and the appropriate strategy to raise the funds needed for the continued implementation of regional centres of fundamental education, were just some of the issues addressed.
The initial financial and ideological support from the Member States seems to have been slowly replaced by budgetary constraints and political opposition. A network of international experts on fundamental education helped promote UNESCO’s initiatives to possible funders with a view to creating twelve fundamental education centres all over the world. Their contribution was seen as vital for the implementation of the project. Despite the hard work and lobbying activities, only two of the initially planned twelve centres were established.
Through this focus on fundamental education, I will argue that, despite the worldwide support for this philosophical and humanistic ideal, political and economic interests soon came to dominate the transition of this initial project to local communities, creating imbalances in relations within and between nations. Consequently, the dissemination and promotion of the UDHR was subject to a wide range of individual translations by UNESCO’s Member States. This only enlarged the difficult task for the intergovernmental organisation to mediate the development of peace in the minds of men and women.