In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Human Rights Law

  • Introduction
  • Recent Historiography of Human Rights: Critiques and Revisions

International Law History of Human Rights Law
Paolo Amorosa, Karla Schröter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0249


The history of human rights has become a burgeoning field of research in recent decades. While its approaches have been plural and diverging, the primary focus of this literature has been on human rights as a philosophical idea or a global political movement. In such literature, the content of key international legal documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the Covenants of 1966 functions more as a background for the description of wider sociopolitical developments than as a direct focus of legal-historical analysis. This entry, instead, highlights and surveys the historical literature on the body of fundamental rights in international conventions and declarations emerging since 1948 as a primarily legal phenomenon. The purpose of taking stock of the history of human rights law as a specialized regime of international law is twofold. First, it complements and supports current revisionist historiographical trends while also signaling their potential limits. Second, it highlights the beneficial role that a further focus on legal historical methods can have in better understanding the complexity and multifaceted nature of post-1948 developments. Indeed, the latest research has focused on the specificities of human rights as a 20th-century phenomenon, rather than seeking close intellectual continuities with a distant past, be it an ancient Greco-Roman inspiration, an early modern natural rights tradition, or an Enlightenment revolutionary conception. Obviously, one such key specificity is the concrete formulation of individual guarantees in terms of positive law beyond the state, as this literature duly notes. A closer focus on the drafting of these key human rights instruments and the struggles over wording and interpretation in considering their implementation opens further perspectives to understand their momentousness and the stakes their conception and operation has raised and keeps raising. In a connected way, this renewed focus on international human rights as a body of legal documents highlights the role legal history can play in making sense of the immense field of the history of human rights and within the diverse array of approaches that converge within it. Highlighting the sociopolitical backgrounds of views that governments and NGOs have brought to bear on the drafting and implementation of international human rights conventions brings to the fore the contentious nature of the post-1945 concept of human rights. Giving concreteness to the idea of human rights as a site of negotiation and contestation, in international courts and diplomatic conferences as much as in street protests and mass demonstrations, opens space to hold together the variety of angles human rights history can be read from. Decolonization and the 1960s, the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s, the various waves of feminism and the mainstreaming of LBTGQ+, the fight against apartheid and demands for racial justice, geopolitical considerations during and after the Cold War, conservative approaches to religious freedom, and many more developments are all perspectives that belong under the wide umbrella of the post-1945 history of human rights and hold valuable explanatory power within it. In this perspective, the effort to pinpoint a “real,” single origin of modern human rights loses most of its meaning. In light of these objectives, this bibliography focuses on texts that see post-1945 developments in their own specificity and not primarily as an essential expression of centuries-old ideas of justice. Among texts with that approach, it further focuses on works that bring together close attention to international human rights documents and the wider sociopolitical conditions that informed the debates on their drafting and implementation. In other words, this entry surveys the space in the literature on international human rights where legal textuality and global history meet. By identifying research that occupies said legal-historical space, this bibliography seeks to pursue an agenda that is descriptive and programmatic at the same time. On one hand, the article aims to create a single reference point to the state of the art of multidisciplinary approaches to the history of human rights law; on the other, it signals that, especially in areas of relatively recent and fast-moving developments, such as the African regional system or Indigenous rights, much work remains to be done.

Recent Historiography of Human Rights: Critiques and Revisions

This section offers a list of readings that ground the history of human rights law as a nonlinear history of the present. This definition includes both critiques of the dominant narrative of progress such as Afshari 2007 and Slotte and Halme-Tuomisaari 2015, culminating in the eventual triumph of human rights, and revisionist accounts offering alternative genealogies and counternarratives like those of Moyn 2018 and Whyte 2019. While the two types of arguments are conceptually interlinked, share a research agenda, and can nowadays often be found together within the same text, it is possible to roughly describe their distinct emergence. The critiques began appearing over twenty years ago across several disciplines. On the back of the human rights euphoria of the 1990s, scholars of law, theology, history, and anthropology began questioning the tenability and persuasiveness of the progressive tale and its utopian corollaries. An evident shortcoming of the narrative, as these critiques have pointed out, is its unrepentant Eurocentrism: it portrays human rights as a Western invention and fails to account for their complex relation with colonialism and imperialism on one hand, and to properly account for contributions of non-Western actors and cultures on the other. The events of the 2000s, 9/11, and the subsequent War on Terror only reinforced this sensibility. Following the trail of Moyn 2010, a growing number of revisionist accounts keep increasing the angles available to describe the kaleidoscope that is the history of human rights in the twentieth century, outlined in various aspects in Hoffmann 2011. These works have primarily relied on two techniques: periodization—putting the focus on different phases of the emergence of contemporary human rights overlooked by the traditional narratives such as Burke 2010 and Jensen 2016—and redescription, providing radically new perspectives on known milestones such as the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, addressed in Mazower 2004 and Roberts 2015, or the European Convention, reappraised in Duranti 2017. Among this vast and constantly growing literature, the works in this section are those that have paid closer attention to international law and have most influenced international legal scholarship. They also differ from works in the following sections for being characterized by wider arguments on the historiography of human rights linked to their more circumscribed historical narratives. Works in later sections will be grouped according to their primary content on specific aspects of the history of human rights law.

  • Afshari, Reza. “On Historiography of Human Right Reflections on Paul Gordon Lauren’s ‘The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen’.” Human Rights Quarterly 29.1 (2007): 1–67.

    DOI: 10.1353/hrq.2007.0000

    This article provides a critical read of Lauren’s classic book, in order to demystify common tropes and narratives in the historiography of human rights. In particular, Afshari warns of the risk in constructing a transhistorical, continuous, and linear development of the idea of human rights. Indeed, this progressive approach papers over the epistemological break that determined the emergence of human rights in the twentieth century and defines their role as a dominant discourse in the present.

  • Burke, Roland. Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.9783/9780812205329

    The book details the impact of decolonization on the United Nations Human Rights Program between the late 1950s and the mid-1970s. Burke describes the multifaceted and complex relation of anticolonial politics to individual rights and finds the ultimate outcome of its influence in the incorporation of culturally relativist views within human rights discourse.

  • Duranti, Marco. The Conservative Human Rights Revolution: European Identity, Transnational Politics and the Origins of the European Convention. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199811380.001.0001

    This wide-ranging history of the genesis of the European Convention on Human Rights first brought to bear the revisionist approach to its subject, highlighting forgotten ideological and political stakes.

  • Hoffmann, Stefan-Ludwig, ed. Human Rights in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    As the title suggests, this collective book is based on the idea that human rights as a legal regime and an established moral and political belief has its origins in the twentieth century. The contributions showcase instances of human rights as a site of political and legal contestation spanning the century.

  • Jensen, Steven L. B. The Making of International Human Rights: The 1960s, Decolonization, and the Reconstruction of Global Values. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781316282571

    Jensen’s story draws us into the events of the 1960s by looking at the role of decolonization as a driver of the relaunch of a meaningful human rights agenda within the United Nations. The book depicts the unexpected leading role taken by newly independent Jamaica in providing a new long-term framework for human rights. In reconstructing those efforts, the author shows how the momentous evolution of human rights in the decade revolved around the fundamental themes of race and religion.

  • Mazower, Mark. “The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933–1950.” The Historical Journal 47.2 (2004): 379–398.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0018246X04003723

    Mazower turns on its head a common notion consistent with the textbook narrative. It is often argued that the United Nations’ human rights regime was an evolved successor to the minority protection mechanisms in place in the interwar years under the aegis of the League of Nations. This article, instead, articulates how the Universal Declaration was in effect a watered-down compromise, accepted by great powers exactly because it scaled back previous politically sensitive commitments into nonbinding statements of principle.

  • Moyn, Samuel. The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010.

    This book is seminal for the later attempts to establish new and diverse narratives of the rise of human rights in the twentieth century. The text’s key argument, put forward in an intentionally provocative fashion, is that the emergence of human rights in their current form can be traced to the 1970s, as exemplified by President Jimmy Carter’s effort to make them a cornerstone of US foreign policy.

  • Moyn, Samuel. Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674984806

    Moyn addresses the history of human rights through the lens of equality. Even in historical phases when the focus has been on the promotion of social and economic rights, demands have focused on minimum floor protection rather than on more substantive egalitarian measures. In other words, human rights’ effect was to marginalize alternative, more impactful visions of social justice.

  • Roberts, Christopher N. J. The Contentious History of the International Bill of Human Rights. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    Through a history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Twin Covenants, Roberts illustrates how the postwar concept of human rights is founded in contestation and competition. The central argument is that ongoing conceptual conflicts should be studied and analyzed within human rights histories, to return a fuller picture of the stakes involved in the current use of human rights language.

  • Slotte, Pamela, and Miia Halme-Tuomisaari, eds. Revisiting the Origins of Human Rights. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    The chapters in this collection are linked by the overarching goal of overcoming the “textbook narrative of human rights.” The introduction articulates how the contributors’ stories complicate the “uni-linear, forward-looking tale of progress and inevitable triumph of human rights” (p. 1), which keeps dominating mainstream political discourse and international law literature. In order to support revisionist narratives, the various chapters of the book revisit classical origin stories by adding lesser-known perspectives or layers of analysis that defy the flattened history of the textbook narrative.

  • Whyte, Jessica. The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism. London: Verso, 2019.

    This book gives concreteness to the long-posited connection between the twin rises of human rights and neoliberalism in the 1970s. In Whyte’s account, human rights discourse has been consciously shaped to depoliticize society and thwart demands of redistribution, both with regard to welfare rights and to global economic justice.

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