Human Rights in World History

Human Rights in World History

Human Rights in World History

Human Rights in World History


Defended by a host of passionate advocates and organizations, certain standard human rights have come to represent a quintessential component of global citizenship. There are, however, a number of societies who dissent from this orthodoxy, either in general or on particular issues, on the basis of political necessity, cultural tradition, or group interest.

Human Rights in World History takes a global historical perspective to examine the emergence of this dilemma and its constituent concepts. Beginning with premodern features compatible with a human rights approach, including religious doctrines and natural rights ideas, it goes on to describe the rise of the first modern-style human rights statements, associated with the Enlightenment and contemporary antislavery and revolutionary fervor. Along the way, it explores ongoing contrasts in the liberal approach, between sincere commitments to human rights and a recurrent sense that certain types of people had to be denied common rights because of their perceived backwardness and need to be "civilized". These contrasts find clear echo in later years with the contradictions between the pursuit of human rights goals and the spread of Western imperialism.

By the second half of the 20th century, human rights frameworks had become absorbed into key global institutions and conventions, and their arguments had expanded to embrace multiple new causes. In today's postcolonial world, and with the rise of more powerful regional governments, the tension between universal human rights arguments and local opposition or backlash is more clearly delineated than ever but no closer to satisfactory resolution.


One of the most important challenges in globalization today involves the recognition that each major society has its own distinctive values and culture. These cultural values, in turn, have usually formed over many centuries and offer deep meaning and identity to most members of that society. The values will differ from one society to the next, and a key goal of contemporary global understanding involves appreciation and acceptance of these differences. Gone are the old imperialist assumptions when one society—the West—could presume that its standards should be imposed worldwide, because all other regions were inferior. As imperialism is cast aside, and more nations rise to significant claims to economic and political power, it’s essential that we learn how to tolerate and accommodate differences. One size does not fit all, and peace in an interconnected world requires that contemporary publics—particularly in the societies with a strong imperialist past—come to terms with that fact. Reasonable coexistence and simple justice both demand flexibility.

One of the most important challenges in our globalized world involves the successful promotion of human rights across political and cultural boundaries. Every person, regardless of race, or religion, or gender, or social class, should enjoy those standards and protections we increasingly realize are vital to a meaningful life. Human rights involve freedom from compulsory labor and the opportunity to enjoy whatever religious faith one chooses—or none at all. They involve legal and political equality for women, as well as safeguards against abuse or sexual violence. They involve freedom to criticize or dissent, and the related freedom to express oneself openly and to assemble in pursuit of one’s views. Obviously, enjoyment of basic human rights is not yet uniform around the world, but it is a sign of progress that virtually everywhere key individuals and organizations share a commitment to extend human rights. Never before have there been so many groups, from agencies in the United Nations to grassroots associations defending political prisoners or labor leaders, devoted to spreading knowledge about human rights and calling attention to violations wherever they may occur.

Both these statements—about the need for tolerance and the need for more vigorous pursuit of basic rights—are persuasive and defendable. Both might easily win approval from individuals proud of their cosmopolitan and . . .

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