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Human Rights in History | The Nation

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Human Rights in History

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It's important to enumerate what human rights, in the 1940s, were not. Ignatieff was wrong. They were not a response to the Holocaust, and not focused on the prevention of catastrophic slaughter. Though closely associated with the better life of social democracy, only rarely did they imply a departure from the persistent framework of nation-states that would have to provide it.

This essay is adapted from Samuel Moyn's The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, forthcoming from Harvard/Belknap. Copyright by Harvard/Belknap. Printed by permission.

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Samuel Moyn
Samuel Moyn teaches history at Columbia University. His Human Rights and the Uses of History, a book collecting...

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Above all, human rights were not even an especially prominent idea. Unlike later, they were restricted to international organization, in the form of the new United Nations. They didn't take hold in popular language and they inspired no popular movement. Whether as one way to express the principles of Western postwar societies or even as an aspiration to transcend the nation-state, the concept of human rights never percolated publicly or globally during the 1940s with the fervor it would have in the '70s and the '90s, including during negotiations over the Universal Declaration.

What if the 1940s were cut loose from the widespread myth that they were a dry run for the post–cold war world, in which human rights began to afford a glimpse of the rule of law above the nation-state? What if the history of human rights in the 1940s were written with later events given proper credit and a radically different set of causes for the current meaning and centrality of human rights recaptured? The central conclusion could only be that, however tempting, it is misleading to describe World War II and its aftermath as the essential source of human rights as they are now understood.

From a global perspective, the brief career of human rights in the 1940s is the story of how the Allied nations elevated language about human rights as they reneged on the earlier wartime promise—made in the 1941 Atlantic Charter—of the self-determination of peoples. Global self-determination would have spelled the end of empire, but by war's end the Allies had come around to Winston Churchill's clarification that this promise applied only to Hitler's empire, not empire in general (and certainly not Churchill's). The Atlantic Charter set the world on fire, but because similar language was dropped from the Universal Declaration, human rights fell on deaf ears. It is not hard to understand why. Human rights turned out to be a substitute for what many around the world wanted: a collective entitlement to self-determination. To the extent they noticed the rhetoric of human rights at all, the subjects of empire were not wrong to view it as a consolation prize.

But even when it comes to the Anglo-American, continental European and second-tier states where human rights had at least some minor publicity, the origins of the concept need to be treated within a narrative explaining not their annunciation but their general marginality throughout the mid- to late 1940s. In the beginning, as a vague synonym for some sort of social democracy, human rights failed to address the genuinely pressing question of which kind of social democracy to bring about. Should it be a version of welfarist capitalism or a full-blown socialism? A moral language announcing standards above politics offered little at a moment in world history of decisive political choice. By 1947–48 and the crystallization of the cold war, the West had succeeded in capturing the language of human rights for its crusade against the Soviet Union; the language's main advocates ended up being conservatives on the European continent. Having been too vague to figure in debates about what sort of social democracy to bring about in the mid-1940s, human rights proved soon after to be just another way of arguing for one side in the cold war struggle. Never at any point were they primarily understood as breaking fundamentally with the world of states that the United Nations brought together.

In considering the origins and peripheral existence of the concept of human rights, the focus should be on the formation of the United Nations, since until not long before Carter's declaration human rights were a project of UN machinery only, along with regionalist initiatives, and had no independent meaning. Yet the founding of the United Nations, and the forging of its Universal Declaration, actually presents a very different story line from the one that actors in the drama of human rights in the 1990s would have us believe.

Recall that FDR had to be cajoled into accepting the idea of an international organization. In the Dumbarton Oaks documents, the startling outlines of a prospective international organization for the postwar era discussed by the Allies in 1944, it was clear that the wartime rhetoric that sometimes included the new phrase "human rights" masked the agendas of great-power realism. And the campaign by various individuals and groups up to and during the epoch-making San Francisco conference on the United Nations in mid-1945 to alter this tactic failed spectacularly, despite the symbolic concession of the reintroduction of the concept of human rights into the charter written there. The victorious wartime alliance had been enshrined as the security council of the new world government, as its seat of true authority, and while some minor states and private citizens attempted to resist a UN that would simply entrench and balance the power of the war's victors, they did not succeed.

If a heroic view of human rights is familiar, it is because of two common but untenable ways of remembering the period. The first is to overstate—often drastically—the goals and effects of the campaign against the Dumbarton Oaks settlement. The second is to isolate the path toward the Universal Declaration as a road still traveled, even if the cold war temporarily erected a barrier on it. But instead of a rousing story of how the document emerged against all odds, one needs to tell an unflattering story about why no one cared about it for decades. As an early NGO chief, Moses Moskowitz, aptly observed later, the truth is that human rights "died in the process of being born." Why they were born again for our time is therefore the true puzzle.

The United States, which had helped drive the global inflation of wartime hopes, quickly retreated from the language it had helped to introduce, leaving Western Europe alone to cultivate it. Even there—especially there—the real debate in domestic politics was about how to create social freedom within the boundaries of the state. Coming after the announcement of the Truman Doctrine in March 1947, with its call for a decisive choice between two "alternative ways of life," the passage of the Universal Declaration in December 1948 offered the mere pretense of unity at a crossroads for humanity. And already by that point, with most emphasis on the right of conscience, European conservatives had captured the language of human rights by deploying it as a synonym for moral community that secularism (and the Soviets) threatened, while few others learned to speak it.

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