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  • The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era
  • Susan Longfield Karr
The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era. By Micheline R. Ishay . Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 480 pp. $29.95 (paper).

Micheline R. Ishay's The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era is an introductory textbook for scholars interested in a longue durée perspective on the history of human rights as well as human rights advocates who are interested in developing a deeper understanding of the historical foundations of modern human rights. Originally published in 2004, Ishay's History of Human Rights has received high praise from a variety of scholars and diverse audiences beyond the academe. The 2008 edition is almost unchanged (including the bibliography), with the exception of a new preface. Here, Ishay seeks to update her argument, which was originally a contribution to human rights discourse at the end of the cold war, in order to engage with issues that have become increasingly central since 9/11.

In the new preface, Ishay seeks to offer "the basic stance that the human rights community needs to take" (p. x), which includes engaging "the question of how best to promote a universal agenda that advances freedom, economic justice, and peace" (p. xix). She suggests that one way to achieve this would be to return to the human rights regime that emerged in postwar Europe, the foundation of which was the 1948 United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights [End Page 582] (UDHR). With renewed attention to principles of the UDHR, Ishay argues, it will be possible to overcome the Manichean divisions that characterize the contemporary regime, including those between globalists and antiglobalists, between Spartacists and Caesarians, and between market fundamentalists and cultural (religious) fundamentalists. Overcoming these divisions will in turn allow the human rights community to achieve "enduring victories over the array of adversaries of human rights: from predatory economic actors to abusers of great power to murderous regimes to despotic fundamentalist movements of all ideological stripes" (p. xxi). Using what Ishay calls a "critical theoretical approach" (p. 2; which might be better described as a Hegelian method), the majority of Ishay's volume is concerned with illuminating the historical—and in the case of the introduction, the moral-philosophical—foundations of the rights enumerated in the UDHR. In addition to demonstrating the lineage of these rights (predominantly with reference to European history), Ishay offers an assessment as to why and how the rights set out in the UDHR can provide a blueprint for addressing current problems.

The majority of Ishay's text provides an account of the steady but slow progress of human rights in the West. It is possible to write such a history, Ishay asserts, because human rights are "the result of a cumulative historical process that takes on a life of its own, sui generis, beyond the speeches and writings of progressive thinkers, beyond the documents and main events that compose a particular epoch" (p. 2). After tracing the career of specific rights, ranging from political and civil rights to social and economic rights, Ishay concludes each chapter with a discussion of those who, despite the progress of rights in any given period, were still excluded from claiming them, morally and legally. As the narrative unfolds, however, we learn that those who were denied rights in one historical period were able to claim them in the next. This is the case because, albeit slow, "the history of human rights shows a clear dimension of progress . . ." (p. 12).

While Ishay's account offers an opportunity for nonspecialists to begin to appreciate the complex history of rights in the West prior to the twentieth century, and even prior to the Enlightenment and French Revolution, her narrative is ultimately forward looking. Her heroes are all characterized as intentionally contributing to the progress achieved in later periods. Precisely because her discussion of rights from the ancients to the moderns is painted with very broad strokes, it is at times perplexing. For example, many will be quite surprised to read that Thomas Hobbes—among others—was a human rights advocate, and...