Beyond the last utopia? Introduction to a student blog series about the history of human rights

Author: Paul van Trigt

Human rights have  since their ‘birth’ been essentially contested concepts. Recently, they have become subject of intense debates in historiography. Sam Moyn’s provocative book The Last Utopia (2010) made in particular clear how important it is to investigate precisely which meaning human rights have been given in a particular context. Moyn argues that it is only since the 1970s that human rights have been defined as liberal freedoms based on individual dignity and protected by international law. Moyn therefore rejects long-term histories of human rights traced back e.g. to the French Revolution. Moreover, he relativizes the importance of human rights in the aftermath of the Second World War and during processes of decolonization. Of course the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was issued in 1948 and the concept has since then been used, but not yet on the scale and with the same meaning as it has had since the 1970s.

This is how I ‘pitched’ my course about the history of human rights in the Leiden (Research)Master History last year. During this research seminar we have critically evaluated Moyn’s perspective by discussing his book and related literature with other theoretical underpinnings, alternative methods and new empirical findings. The students had to apply the acquired insights by investigating a case study and writing a paper about that case in relation to the historiographical debate about human rights. This resulted in a wonderful series of papers about very different topics. I have asked them to summarize their results in a series of blog posts that will be published on this website in the coming weeks. The series underlines how rewarding the topic human rights is to teach about: we had lively debates varying from discussing the foundations of the profession to issues that are at stake in current society.

Moreover, the student papers made clear something else. In a review essay that will be published later this year (in Dutch: Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis 131,2) and in which I discuss three recent monographs: Mark Bradley’s The World Reimagined (2016), Steven L.B. Jensen’s The Making of International Human Rights (2016) and Marco Duranti’s The Conservative Human Rights Revolution (2017), I have observed some ‘human rights fatigue’ related to the above mentioned discussion about periodization. On the basis of my analysis of these three books I have argued that human rights and their chronology should no longer be considered as a historiographical field in itself. Rather, human rights have to be  investigated as part of broader political ideologies and practices, as tool of marginalized countries and groups and as a concept that enables historians to better understand relations between developments at the local and translocal level and domestic and foreign policies. The students’ blogs underline exactly this potential that the history of human rights has to offer.

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