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It was within such popular sentiments in the post-colonial environment that self-determination and human rights discourse came into fruition, culminating in the Helsinki Act of , which provided a forum for North Atlantic rights activists.


Moyn explains that the breakdown of the many competing utopias in the late twentieth century came to an end with the emergence of new hopes in human rights. One of the most influential movements, for instance, began with the extension of Amnesty International into the US. Yet the growth of human rights discourse during the late s and s did not come without a price. What is ironic about that, according to Moyn, is that human rights were becoming another utopia in themselves.

Sam Moyn's The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History pt. 2

Indeed, the human rights movement as advocated by many intellectuals, such as Thomas Buergenthal, Louis Henkin and Theodore Meron, focused on the practical endeavor to defend the individual against the state. This started to become a problem, Moyn tells us, when human rights became a model for criminal adjudication in response to the ethnic cleansings and genocide in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. On the one hand, injecting international law with human rights discourse was good.

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It was a breakthrough insofar as international lawyers prior to the International Criminal Tribunals of Yugoslavia and Rwanda rightly considered human rights to be powerless. On the other hand, it opened the door for military humanitarian intervention in the name of human rights.

This manifested itself in George W. Thus, while human rights promised power for the powerless, it had become a tool for the powerful.

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For Moyn this is not surprising—using popular sentiments to support the actions of the powerful has been the fate of most utopias throughout history. He concludes with the following remarks, which summarize his laudable book:. Above all, it is crucial to link the emergence of human rights to the history of utopianism—the heartfelt desire to make the world a better place. Moyn has continued this line of argument in his latest book, Human Rights and the Uses of History. Instead, they should acknowledge that human rights are an international movement that arose only within the last few decades.

Moyn thus conveys a sense of urgency in his work. Yet unlike other harsher critics of human rights, he strives to understand how human rights can be, and have been, used for humanitarianism. This makes his historical analysis truly engaging and, arguably, more revealing than other historical accounts that distort the past to suit the present.

Moyn shows that when one looks closely at the recent growth of human rights, one sees that human rights cannot be treated as an unquestionable good. Moyn also expresses concern over the moral foundations verses the moral practice of human rights. He shows that since the end of World War II, dignity has become a popular concept among human rights advocates and scholars. Yet thanks to Kantians, such as John Rawls, and post-Holocaust Catholics, humanity and rights for all of humankind have been placed on dignity, the alleged source of universal human worth.

Moyn shows, however, that the very advocates of dignity have often failed to apply that standard to all humans. Moreover, advocates of human dignity have rarely promoted intervention to stop true human rights abuses.

Human Rights in History | The Nation

Despite all of his criticisms, Moyn acknowledges some of the more persuasive ideas in human rights discourse over the last decade. Moyn complements this idea by showing that human ideologies and interests, such as the desire for decolonization and self-determination, spread among populations due to human choices and population circumstances. Similar to The Last Utopia, Moyn shows that the breakthrough in human rights as a popular discourse occurred in the latter twentieth century.

However, in Human Rights and the Uses of History, Moyn examines a number of other breakthroughs that occurred alongside human rights, such as Holocaust awareness, torture, and liberal internationalism. He says that popular Holocaust memory coincided primarily with the emergence of the moral imagination of the s. And though liberal internationalism promotes the rule of law and the rights of individuals at home, it has rarely translated into the same politics abroad. All of this leads Moyn to ask what the future of human rights ought to be.

And while there are many arguments and much detail in my book, my hope from the beginning was that I could address a simple problem: when exactly a concept so central to the moral consciousness of so many idealists today became the highest cause for them to defend. I show that human rights crystallized in the moral consciousness of people only in the s, whether in Europe, Latin America, or the United States. To make this argument I look back at prior meanings of rights claims, which certainly were made—but, I contend, worked very differently. I also examine carefully eras in which the notion could have spread in a broad-based movement, and could have crystallized as a touchstone, but failed to do so: notably the aftermath of World War II when many people dreamed of a new deal and during the decolonization of the globe that followed almost immediately.

I also look more carefully at international lawyers, to ask when they became so concerned with human rights; my answer is that it was around the same time as everybody else.

The Last Utopia

There were many reasons this happened. The chief one, I suggest, is a widespread disappointment with earlier, hitherto more inspirational forms of idealism that were failing. Human rights took their place. The public does not realize that this statement is not an established scientific principle but an ethical preference.