The Great Power Origins of Human Rights

For years, historians depicted the history of human rights as the inexorable triumph of universal norms. This account underestimates both the historical and contemporary uncertainty surrounding many international human rights. As even casual observers must note, the tale of human rights progress is not littered with beneficent heads of state persuaded to pursue progress by the moral charge of universal norms. Instead, this history’s primary scenes feature struggles among great powers, peoples, and movements advancing diverse interests. Recognizing the complexity of human rights history, a new generation of historians has emphasized that human rights progress is not preordained, but rather requires the alignment of powerful actors’ self-interests with human rights goals. Building off insights gleaned from these new revisionist histories, this Note provides a more accurate account of human rights evolution during the period from World War I to the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Though there were important events in human rights history before and after this era, the foundation of contemporary human rights law was built during this thirty-year period. Properly understanding the interests and actors that shaped this foundation will assist in predicting and influencing the future growth of human rights law.