The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s

The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s

The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s

The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s


Between the 1960s and the 1980s, the human rights movement achieved unprecedented global prominence. Amnesty International attained striking visibility with its Campaign Against Torture; Soviet dissidents attracted a worldwide audience for their heroism in facing down a totalitarian state; the Helsinki Accords were signed, incorporating a "third basket" of human rights principles; and the Carter administration formally gave the United States a human rights policy.

The Breakthrough is the first collection to examine this decisive era as a whole, tracing key developments in both Western and non-Western engagement with human rights and placing new emphasis on the role of human rights in the international history of the past century. Bringing together original essays from some of the field's leading scholars, this volume not only explores the transnational histories of international and nongovernmental human rights organizations but also analyzes the complex interplay between gender, sociology, and ideology in the making of human rights politics at the local level. Detailed case studies illuminate how a number of local movements--from the 1975 World Congress of Women in East Berlin to anti-apartheid activism in Britain, to protests in Latin America--affected international human rights discourse in the era as well as the ways these moments continue to influence current understanding of human rights history and advocacy. The global south--an area not usually treated as a scene of human rights politics--is also spotlighted in groundbreaking chapters on Biafran, South American, and Indonesian developments. In recovering the remarkable presence of global human rights talk and practice in the 1970s, The Breakthrough brings this pivotal decade to the forefront of contemporary scholarly debate.

Contributors: Carl J. Bon Tempo, Gunter Dehnert, Celia Donert, Lasse Heerten, Patrick William Kelly, Benjamin Nathans, Ned Richardson-Little, Daniel Sargent, Brad Simpson, Lynsay Skiba, Simon Stevens.


Samuel Moyn

The history of human rights is a new domain of inquiry. Until recently, this emerging field focused intently on distant origins, from the Bible to medieval philosophy, and from early modern natural rights theory to the age of democratic revolution. Above all other eras, it favored the 1940s, reasonably enough given the framing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), on which the historical literature has concentrated. About the trajectory of human rights after its ancient, medieval, early modern, and midcentury phases, however, little has been written.

When less rosy and more critical accounts of the emergence of human rights began to be produced—accounts that did not view the birth of the idea with the romanticized purity its first admirers had portrayed—they also concentrated on the 1940s. Yet in this approach, too, how exactly it was that human rights acquired such considerable prominence in today’s world remained hazy. After all, both the positive and critical accounts, which at least agreed in assigning great significance to the midcentury as the moment of the breakthrough, also concurred that it was immediately snuffed out: the Cold War supervened, as a struggle in which idealistic norms had no purchase. It was as if the history of human rights were the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11–32) but only narrated his birth and departure— even though it is his return that really mattered.

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