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Reviewed by:
  • Human Rights in the Twentieth Century
  • David P. Forsythe
Human Rights in the Twentieth Century. Edited by Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2011) 366 pp. $90.00 cloth $28.99 paper

Scholars interested in internationally recognized human rights are no doubt uniformly pleased to see historians contributing more to this field of study. Philosophers and law professors were early pioneer researchers, with social scientists close behind, as Hoffmann notes in his introduction. This volume makes clear that much serious and impressive historical interpretation is now being generated.

The introduction's tour d'horizon discusses the debate about the origins of modern human-rights discourse and whether rights talk is accurately to be characterized as an Enlightenment project. These early pages suggest that the volume is organized around the human-rights issue as "a history of political contestations" (26). More vaguely, the editor suggests that "the prevailing models for the history of human rights are hardly [End Page 444] convincing" and that "the politics of human rights continues to fail in our time" (17, 26). These are not self-evident assertions.

The material in this collection is loosely organized into five sections: "The Emergence of Human Rights Regimes"; "Postwar Universalism and Legal Theory"; "Human Rights, State Socialism, and Dissent"; "Genocide, Humanitarianism, and the Limits of Law"; and "Human Rights, Sovereignty, and the Global Condition." Many of the fifteen authors have read broadly in legal and social-science theory, as well as in history. Some of their archival work merits much more exploration—such as that in the rich archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, the early years of which require knowledge of French.

Because most of the authors are either European or historians interested in Europe, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman sometimes seem to have had little impact on the evolution of rights talk after 1945, which is not the case. Then again, the authors might occasionally slight the role of the United States because they want to contest the dominant history, which entails much attention to Washington. To cover the rights thinking of Christian Democrats, largely Catholic, in Europe is all well and good, but the chapters devoted to this intellectual history sometimes seem like footnotes to more important developments. Even granting an appreciation of history for its own sake, the question remains why some of these chapters were included—unless the point was to demonstrate the range of Eurocentric historical studies about human rights.

The three chapters about human rights and European communism were especially well done, with careful research using primary sources. At the least the chapters about European brutality in decolonization, war crimes in South Asia, and nationalism in Africa present material outside of Europe. The chapter about the International Labor Organization effectively covers the competing discourses in the effort to advance human dignity—social justice versus human rights.

All in all, and despite the usual quibbles with this or that assertion, if this volume is representative of the nature of the new history on human rights, we can look forward to more of it.

David P. Forsythe
University of Nebraska, Lincoln


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pp. 444-445
Launched on MUSE
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