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  • On Historiography of Human Rights Reflections on Paul Gordon Lauren's The Evolution of International Human Rights:Visions Seen
  • Reza Afshari (bio)

I. Historical Narrative

The historiography of the contemporary human rights as a scholarly pursuit enhances our knowledge of the origins and development of the discourse and improves our understanding of how that history is constructed—with its paradoxes revealed and its myths examined—and as such it helps the international human rights advocates to contribute increasingly effectively to the future evolution of the concept of universal human rights.

One of the main issues that the current historiography has to grapple with is the apparent disparity between the often-celebrated normative global achievements in codifying human rights values among the UN member states and the often-lamented failures to enforce them. This glaring absence of effective enforcement is mainly addressed by scholars and practitioners without offering a comprehensive picture linking it to the process by which those norms were articulated in the language of human rights in the first place. I argue that the link should not be seen as mechanical or procedural. Weaknesses so obviously apparent in the enforcement process signify the lack of vigor in the normative consensus; the vim and vigor by which the face was adorned by high-flying colors might in fact have masked a frail body. [End Page 1]

Paul Gordon Lauren's book remains perhaps the most significant contribution to the historiography of human rights.1 I use the book as the focus of this manuscript because it is truly a valuable asset, particularly for those of us who teach human rights in history departments. Lauren writes as an artist paints, or a Persian carpet maker weaves densely knotted and intricate designs whose brilliant hues compete with each other for attention. He casts a searching light around the world and throughout history to locate those who, driven by compassion, altruism, and pity, have objected to injustice and exploitation. He refers to them all as human rights visionaries, a characterization that initially sparked my commentaries. Their visions seemingly transcended the bounds of the historically-contingent possibilities and struggled to improve human conditions. In a beautiful historical tapestry he offers "visions of prophets, philosophers, and activists" seen last century or centuries ago in the United States or in "distant lands," all "still capable of capturing our imagination, inspiring our thoughts, and influencing our behavior today." Indeed they do, particularly, I dare say, through Lauren's inspiring narrative which depicts their articulated wrath against perceived injustices and their hopes for an improved future. The book is full of retrospective and illuminative judgments. At certain critical conjunctures—such as the WWII era leading to the founding of the United Nations—many of the book's colorful threads converge to create complications that only an astute scholar-author could sift through without being lost in analytical mazes or leaving behind bewildered readers.

Lauren follows the well-trodden path of the rights-of-men scholarship, tracing the historical origins of the concept back to ancient Greece and Rome, whose thinkers delved into a universal force they called the law of nature. To the pantheon of the ancients he adds the Mediterranean prophets and the Asian sages. The path leads him from the thirteenth century to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), passing through the renaissance and the decline of feudalism. At that stage, he explains, a major historical evolution occurred, whose narrative bears a formal resemblance to today's language of human rights. Lauren proclaims, "Thoughtful and insightful visionaries in many different times and places have seen in their mind's eye a world in which all people might enjoy certain basic and inherent rights simply by virtue of being human beings."2 This theme runs throughout the book, constructing a continuous, grand historical narrative to the present day.

The book delineates the antecedences of human rights norms and explores the sources of "tributaries into the ever expanding and evolving river of thought about what would eventually be described as international human rights,"3 as well as the barriers constructed by the conservatives of each period to obstruct or at least impede the flow of such a mighty river...


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