The International Human Rights Movement: A History

By Fox, Michael Allen | International Journal on World Peace, March 2013 | Go to article overview

The International Human Rights Movement: A History


Fox, Michael Allen, International Journal on World Peace


THE INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS MOVEMENT: A HISTORY Aryeh Neier Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012 379 pages, cloth, $35.00

This detailed and fascinating volume tells the story of the origins, waxing and waning of influence, transformations, and impact on history of the international human rights movement. The concept of human rights, and even of their universality, has several well-known philosophical, religious, and historical foundations in the eighteenth century. Only a few decades later, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, human rights for the first time were at the center of peace treaty negotiations. They shaped the suffragist and abolition of slavery movements in the nineteenth century in England and the United States, the two countries in which human rights thinking became most firmly entrenched. International humanitarian law developed significantly in the period from the 1850s to the 1970s. However, as Aryeh Neier argues, the late 1970s mark the moment when the international human rights movement first exerted itself "as a force in world affairs," and "identified itself with international humanitarian law and began to promote compliance."

These advances, Neier reveals, were consolidated and extended by events that took place during the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union, when human rights became identified with the freedom and independence movements that swept Eastern Europe. A great deal of his book is devoted to demonstrating and documenting, "the driving force behind the protection of human rights worldwide, today and for roughly the past thirty-five years, has been the [largely secular] nongovernmental human rights movement." Indeed, in the concluding chapter of The International Human Rights Movement: A History, Neier returns to this theme, reiterating that, "In the second decade of the twenty-first century, and for the foreseeable future, it is the nongovernmental movement that has assumed and must assume leadership as the voice of human rights."

Neier speaks with considerable authority on these matters. Not only is he a meticulous scholar and historian of recent times, he also has an extensive background of high-level service with the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, and is currently president of the Open Societies Foundations. This experience gives the reader the feel of receiving an insider's account of the human rights movement, which adds much depth of interest to the book.

An early chapter seeks to define what rights are. Neier states simply that "Rights, most proponents agree, are ethical norms with a legal content that requires that they should be honored and enforced by public institutions." This discussion concerns "Which norms warrant universal legal enforcement," while other issues ("What circumstances warrant temporary abridgements of rights? What abridgements are permissible in such circumstances?") are taken up later within the context of the post-September 11 era. Neier adheres to the view that all humans have rights by virtue of being human; have equal entitlements to rights; and can expect and demand everywhere the protection rights afford. The usual rights theorists and foundational documents are cited (Locke, Jefferson, Marx, the French Declaration of Rights and American Bill of Rights, and so on), but disappointingly next to nothing is said about Islamic or non-We stern roots of rights.

One of the more fine-grained features of Neier's treatment of human rights is his evaluation of the United States' actions in both promoting and subverting rights in recent times. Many scenarios running through the Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama administrations are analyzed with scrupulous care, and the role of senior diplomats and officials in major decision-making is laid out fully. (Much of international human rights law became incorporated into American law in the 1970s. But curiously, the influential role of the US civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, both domestically and internationally, is hardly mentioned. …

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