Revisiting the Origins of Human Rights

Eds. Pamela Slotte, Miia Halme‑Tuomisaari
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2015

Until recently, the history of human rights did not attract the attention of researchers, as there were no doubts about the coherent tale recounting their prehistory, culminating in 1948 with the announcement of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and about their subsequent history leading to their recognition as a universal civilisational and moral standard, executed more and more successfully across the world by the international community. The prehistoric part circulated in two versions: the first, longer version spoke about the ancient origins of human rights and traced the signals of their crystallisation back to Roman law, the rules of the Christian religion, the early modern concept of natural rights, the Enlightenment ideas and the codes of the American and French revolutions up to the liberal ideas of the 19th century; the second, shorter version argued for their sudden appearance in the 1940s as a reaction to the atrocities of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Nowadays the two narratives serve as a starting point for a revision of the history of human rights aimed at recognising internal tensions and discontinuities in their history, resulting in nonlinear, multithreaded stories.
One example of this critical endeavour is the bookRevisiting the Origins of Human Rights, carefully prepared by a group of its most important actors. As the title suggests, the main focus of the work is the origin of human rights, analysed with a large dose of self‑awareness and trying to avoid the trap into which many historians fall – the myth of the beginning. The authors recognise complex configurations of events and ideas and set them in multi‑layered contexts (social, political, cultural), and the phenomena emerging from this procedure are labelled, for lack of other metaphors, as “sources” or “roots” of human rights. This part of the research reveals the dynamics of the historical process, including the appearance and disappearance of rights, as well as conflicts and negotiations between ideas and practices connected with them. The authors reflect on the relationship between the idea of rights and the Thomist tradition, imperialism, socialism, the struggle for the emancipation of women, pacifist and ecumenical movements, decolonisation and the Cold War.
All these manoeuvres show the problematic nature of the very definition of human rights, further emphasised by the researchers themselves. They rightly argue for an open, capacious formula covering all ideas and practices which can be combined with the belief that people are equal and free. Human rights not only concern the law, but they also constitute a philosophical worldview, a utopian political programme, an object of collective desire, and an element of cultural memory – and all this is behind their strong permeation with social emotions and their global popularity as a cause demanding joint action. The emergence of contemporary human rights meant that a number of the demands and attempts at their implementation which appeared in the history of the idea of universal liberty and equality were rejected and forgotten. Today human rights are understood as an established international set of norms regulating the relations between the individual and the state, which only need to be successfully executed, while in the past they were perceived as ideas challenging the existing social structures. In the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century their main component was equality rights, such as the right to work, to form labour unions, to decent and equal pay or to social security, today ignored in the human rights discourse.
The deliberate use of an open definition of rights led the authors to also discuss the history of collective rights – the process of building a supranational system of norms, developed in parallel, but marginalised for the sake of individual human rights. Rights regarding groups, such as the right to self‑determination of nations, rights protecting religious and ethnic minorities, were the foundation of the international order in the interwar period, but after 1948 they had to give way to an order focused on individuals. In fact, this is the point where the universalism of the contemporary interpretation of human rights is questioned. Making individuals the subjects of human rights is compatible with the expectations of individualistic Western societies, but is less useful for non‑Western peoples.
The authors’ insightful and engaged approach is aimed at discovering and analysing also the “dark side” of the history of human rights, prevailing in many stretches of this history. Human rights have been used to destroy social, cultural, economic and political relations of subordination, but also to build them, hold power and oppose it. Human rights were and still are used by European powers, which under their civilising mission pursued for two centuries reach for the human rights rhetoric in order to build unequal relations with non‑European societies. For example, human rights are an element of the civilisational standard – a formula employed as an instrument of international policy to shape a hierarchy of states and divide them into those which fulfil the standard and may be treated as equal and those breaching the norm and requiring guidance from mature members of the community of nations. This aspect of human rights also sparked a heated argument between human rights activists and the peace movement about what is more important: executing human rights or preventing armed conflicts.
Of special note in the book are numerous and extensive pieces of self‑commentary where the authors recount their joint undertaking. Along with convincing descriptions of successful research procedures, they point to the limitations of their work, including unresolved problems and failed attempts at transcending the existing trajectories of thinking. Has this critical venture managed to avoid recreating hierarchies contained in established narratives on human rights? The researchers rightly acknowledge that although they succeeded in capturing and describing the tension between the universal claims of human rights and a Eurocentrism expressed in their use on the international arena and in their being commonly perceived as the creation of the West, the articles, concentrated on Europe and North America, seem to confirm the rooting of rights in the culture of the global centre. The authors justify such a result of the project with the claim that the sources of human rights simply are to be found in European culture. I believe, however, that this view might have been given a more nuanced form, by invoking the history, described in the book, of the mandate system and the relation between British imperialism and human rights, where both these phenomena were also shaped by non‑European societies; we could also mention – which the authors fail to do – the history of building and functioning of the interwar order of protecting minorities, in which inhabitants of peripheral Eastern Europe were involved. It is worth adding that Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, two important figures for contemporary human rights, came from this part of the world. We should also mention – still selecting only well‑known events – the initiative of the Japanese delegation for the 1919 Versailles Conference, which put forward a proposal, rejected by the great powers, to include in the Covenant of the League of Nations a clause speaking about equality of races; worth recalling too is the post‑war international policy of the UN General Assembly, dominated by representatives of Third World countries. It may turn out that human rights are a universal project.

Jakub Muchowski