Webcast Recap

Samuel Moyn, professor of history at Columbia University; Jerry Z. Muller, Professor of History, Catholic University; Rosa Brooks, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Rule of Law and International Humanitarian Policy

Samuel Moyn, professor of history at Columbia University, describes his book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History as "an attempt by a professional historian to do a dispassionate reckoning of where international human rights fit as a set of concepts, but also as a set of practices in modern political history." This work, he said, is a response to previous tries at reconstructing human rights in a historical context. This book seeks to place a clear accent on the 1970s, rather than a longer sweep of history, as the "real era in which international human rights finally became prominent."

In his presentation, Moyn traced the origins of international human rights. The universalist ideas of the past, he contended, left room for our modern conceptions of "a global moral, and possibly legal, order." Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century notions of natural rights were very different from current conceptions of international human rights. These "revolutionary rights" were about the "construction of the state, not the transcendence of the state."

Asking why there was no human rights movement associated with the revolutionary era, Moyn pointed out that "rights were...in the cause of sovereignty, not a concept to qualify or overcome sovereignty." Struggles for the rights of man during this time were "struggles for the state or struggles about the meaning of citizenship within it."

Turning to twentieth-century history, Moyn said that human rights are a replacement for the "rights of man" movements, not a continuous progression of the same ideas. During the 1940s, human rights remained a high-level concept connected with "welfarism" or social democracy and concepts of self-determination and empire.

For Moyn, the ascendance of international human rights in the 1970s was a result of "a new galvanizing idealism that unites people beyond boarders." This positive development followed dissent from the Cold War order and benefited from the kind of grassroots movement that had not been present in the past. Amnesty International's membership exploded during this time, boosted by brutal developments in South America.

Human rights as a concept was also bolstered during the 1970s by its emergence in forums outside of the United Nations. Communist dissidents' adoption of human rights as a counter to Soviet policies, according to Moyn, expanded the reach of such ideas. In the United States, human rights came into public consciousness "as a moral response to the failure of prior power politics."

Commentator Jerry Z. Muller, a professor of history at of Catholic University, praised The Last Utopia as "remarkably wide-ranging, erudite...and intellectually stimulating." The central insight of the work, Muller said, is that human rights in the 1970s emerged as a result of disillusionment with radical socialism and other New Left movements in the U.S. and Western Europe.

Muller noted, however, a certain ambivalence inherent in referring to the new concept of human rights as "the last utopia" To him the phrasing seemed to question whether, as a utopia, human rights can actually be realized. Focusing on the role of Cold Warriors in the ascent of human rights, Muller argued that the book contained "too little discussion of the role of power," both military and economic, in "bringing about the kinds of improvements in human rights that the book discusses." This, he thought, resulted in too little attention to the power dynamics that ultimately determine the effectiveness of human rights ideas in the real world.

In her comment on the book, Rosa Brooks, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Rule of Law and International Humanitarian Policy, questioned whether or not the historical progression of human rights matters to practitioners and policy makers today. She then discussed the idea that technology may have been a driving force in the development of human rights as a supranational, sovereignty-limiting concept.

Technology, she said, allows the individual to have a more visceral, energetic reaction to abuses. Brooks agreed that human rights gained traction in the 1970s because it was seen as an anti-political movement. In her view, the concept appealed to a "fatigued audience," weary of political infighting. However, as the human rights discourse shifted from individual victims toward larger structural issues, the general public had more difficulty in relating to the concept.

By: Andrew Bedell
Sonya Michel, Director, United States Studies