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  • Where are the Lawyers, the Activists, the Claimants, and the Experts?
  • Meredith Terretta (bio)
Steven L. B. Jensen, The Making of International Human Rights: The 1960s, Decolonization, and the Reconstruction of Global Values (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2016), ISBN 9781107112162, 313 pages.

In this diplomatic history, Steven L. B. Jensen, a Ph.D. Researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, succeeds in showing how human rights diplomacy at the United Nations in the 1960s paved the way for the development of international human rights legal norms in the 1970s,1 a point he drives home clearly in Chapter 6. His evidence for the 1960s’ connection to the 1970s—which revisionist historians of human rights, following Samuel Moyn’s polemical book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010), have overemphasized as the “moment” of their breakthrough—builds throughout the previous chapters. This “moment” of human rights history is overemphasized because—although undeniable changes do occur in the late 1970s, changes which result in the institutionalization of human rights and their incorporation into foreign policy in the global North—human rights as a matter of activism, policy-making, international law, and even foreign policy, predated this paradigm shift.

In Chapter 2, “‘The Problem of Freedom’: the United Nations and De-colonization, 1960–1961,” Jensen argues that by focusing on how to bring a legal end to colonialism, the UN debates on decolonization signalled a new trajectory for human rights norms in international relations.2 In Chapter 3, “From Jamaica with Law: The Rekindling of International Human Rights, 1962–1967,” Jensen focuses on Jamaica’s role as a “human rights broker on the international scene”3 through its proposal of an International Human Rights Year in 1968 and its leadership in forming “the first human rights foreign policy” in 1964.4 In Chapter 4, “The Making of a Precedent: Racial Discrimination and International Human [End Page 226] Rights Law, 1962–1966,” Jensen boldly declares that “International human rights law has been built on a foundation of race,”5 and, to back up this claim, offers a detailed account of the negotiation of the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) of 1965. He shows convincingly that CERD “paved the way for the universal legal recognition of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights elaborated in the Human Rights Covenants from 1966.”6 In Chapter 5, “‘The Hymn of Hate’: the Failed Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Religious Intolerance, 1962–1967,” Jensen analyses in similar detail the diplomatic negotiations of the failed Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Religious Intolerance that unfolded in same period as CERD negotiations and highlights Liberia’s leadership in attempting to move forward on the convention, with the support of “Afro-Asian states” such as Tanzania, Congo, Pakistan,7 Jamaica, and the Philippines.8

Jensen’s work carves a path away from the Cold War as a primary cause of the inertia of human rights at the UN in the mid-to-late 1960s and refocuses instead on the southern states’ growing sense of betrayal. In choosing to subject a failed Convention to historical analysis, Jensen demonstrates how promoters of human rights at the UN viewed race and religion as articulated issues in the 1960s. Perhaps more importantly, he shows how the International Court of Justice’s 1966 failure to rule against South Africa’s ongoing annexation of South West Africa (SWA) into an apartheid state caused a deterioration in international relations and a general distrust in the UN from smaller state champions of human rights across the “Global South” that was never recovered.9 Jensen might have better contextualized the International Court of Justice’s judgment in 1966—essentially the Court’s refusal to pronounce on Liberia and Ethiopia’s complaint against South Africa for refusing to administer SWA as a UN Trust Territory and de facto annexing it into its apartheid state—by making reference to the preceding decisions in 1950, 1955, and 1956, and its 1971 advisory opinion on South Africa’s failure to withdraw from SWA despite the Security Council Resolution (1970).10 De-spite this, Jensen’s argument regarding the long term impact of...


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pp. 226-233
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