Does human rights have a history? As late as 1998 not a single reference to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights had appeared in any article of the American Historical Review. But by 2006 the field of human rights history had become prominent enough for the President of the American Historical Association to claim “we are all historians of human rights.” In this recent and very rapid development of the field, the fundamental premises of how we conceive of a history of human rights remain in flux and must be reconsidered: when were “human rights” invented and what were the major stages of the evolution of their different elements? Rights talk emerged in early modern natural law theory, if not before, and played a famous role in early modern revolutions. But while humanitarian agendas sprouted throughout modern history, the international human rights regime began to take root only in the 1940s, and exploded to public prominence in the 1970s.
Do we then tell the longue durée of human rights history as an evolutionary narrative or one of sharp disjunctures and discontinuities? There are also critical substantive issues that remain unresolved. What counts as human rights history? What rights at particular times and places have been seen as human rights and what has made them visible in those moments? What leads ordinary people to band together to found initiatives to monitor human rights violations? When and under what conditions have states propounded and conformed to crucial cosmopolitan norms? Are human rights a Western discourse or are they rooted in a broader array of geographical, gendered and cultural contexts?
Friday, April 3, 2015
Conference: Does Human Rights Have a History?
conference on "Does Human Rights Have a History?" The program is here. Here's the idea: