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  • The Contentious History of the International Bill of Human Rights by Christopher N.J. Roberts
  • Bonny Ibhawoh
The Contentious History of the International Bill of Human Rights, by Christopher N.J. Roberts. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2015. xiv, 237 pp. $32.99 US (paper).

Historical scholarship on human rights has been critiqued for using history to affirm the inevitable rise of human rights. Human rights have been presented as the ultimate utopia, rather than an ideology shaped by conscious choices and historical accidents. Several recent studies have therefore highlighted the limitations of the linear and triumphalist narratives that dominate human rights scholarship. These new histories go beyond the triumphs of human rights to draw attention to the underlying tensions and contestations that have shaped the development of the human rights idea.

In this book, Christopher Roberts contributes to the emergent genre of contested human rights histories by exploring the conflicts and opposition that underscored the development of the International Bill of Human Rights (ibhr) at its mid-century moment of inception. The story of contemporary human rights, Roberts points out, is incomplete without these oppositional narratives because they shaped what human rights has become in our world. [End Page 442]

Although human rights are held to be a universal good, this book shows that there has not been universal agreement about the nature of the concept. After WWII, individuals, organized groups, nations, conservative leaders, and progressive scholars objected to the emerging idea of universal human rights for numerous reasons. The concept of human rights as a response to the carnage and atrocities of the war was anything but self-evident. The process of drafting a nonbinding Universal Declaration of Human Rights (udhr) and binding Covenants was defined by deep-seated disagreements. Imperial powers such as Great Britain and influential political factions in the United States resisted the inclusive discourse promised by universal human rights because it threatened the colonial order and domestic racial hierarchies. In the US, professional organizations such as the American Bar Association, the American Anthropological Association and the American Medical Association rejected parts of the new human rights concept. Even progressive thinkers such as Hannah Arendt and Mohandas Gandhi were skeptical of the value of a universal rights regime.

Beyond the confines of intellectual and diplomatic debates at the United Nations, Roberts shows how opposition to universal human rights also manifested in public discourse. Proponents and opponents of American internationalism sparred loudly in newspapers and magazines, newsreels and radio shows, and on the floor of Congress about the implications of universal human rights for the mixing of the races, the future of colonialism, national sovereignty, and the spread of communism.

Roberts cautions, however, that highlighting the opposition to universal human rights should not be read as representing a normatively critical approach to the history of human rights. Opposition directed at the udhr or other rights instruments were more or less contentions of particular representations of social and political relationships rather than a rejection of ‘‘human rights’’ per se. Therefore, the emphasis should not be on establishing whether the critics were right or wrong but on identifying and understanding the inevitable conflicts and underlying social fractures that defined this moment of rights formation.

Apart from exploring the contentious history of the ibhr, Roberts also offers a human rights story that is centred on people’s aspirations and struggles rather than legal documents and political discourse. Human rights, he reminds his readers, are about people and they should be studied as such. Although a people-centred approach to human rights scholarship should be an intuitive starting point, Robert argues that it has been overshadowed by other intellectual approaches that tend to dislocate human rights from their human sources. The stated aim of the book, therefore, is to reconnect people and their rights. Re-inscribing people and human events into human rights history is not simply an academic necessity, it [End Page 443] also holds practical relevance. As the author rightly notes, the omission of people’s experiences from standard human rights founding stories is intimately related to the reasons and forces that keep so many separated from their human rights today.

This book largely succeeds in constructing...


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pp. 442-444
Launched on MUSE
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