Debating Human Rights History
In 2010, Samuel Moyn published “The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History“, a book that provoked its readers to critically engage with questions about when human rights emerged as an agenda on the international political scene. Moyn’s suggestion that this was a strikingly recent development (dating to 1977) raised deeper questions about the politics underlying human rights and its successes in displacing alternate utopian visions. Last year, Moyn published a book review of Jenny Martinez‘s “The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law” and Kathryn Sikkink‘s “The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics“, criticizing both books for insufficiently acknowledging the limitations of international human rights law as an avenue for social and political reform.
This month’s Harvard Law Review contains two new and worthwhile contributions to the debate. Philip Alston begins with a review of Jenny Martinez’s book, noting the importance of determining the origins of today’s human rights system as well as the lack of consensus around the answer to that question. Alston notes the ways in which Martinez’s book contradicts Moyn’s thesis, situating each author within a typography of historiographical debates. He critiques both, noting that they present different definitions of human rights that carry buried analytical assumptions, and suggests that a meaningful history should recognize that human rights is a polycentric enterprise. In other words, historians of human rights must examine ideas, social movements, legal traditions, and institutions in order to understand where human rights came from and where it is headed.
Jenny Martinez responds to Alston’s review, presenting a more nuanced view of her causal arguments than her critics, and taking on Moyn in the process. She agrees with Alston that human rights is polycentric, and suggests that Moyn’s definition of human rights leaves out important aspects of the larger picture. Martinez defends herself against claims that a pro-human rights bias infuses her work, and argues that an accurate account of human rights prior to 1977 is crucial in understanding the role of international law today and drawing lessons for current legal institutions.
The books and articles are worth reading for the rich factual analysis alone. But there’s more to human rights history than that. This is one of the most provocative debates in recent years about the analytical framework through which we understand human rights. As Alston notes, “[t]here is a struggle for the soul of the human rights movement, and it is being waged in large part through the proxy of genealogy.”