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The History of Human Rights
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Micheline Ishay recounts the dramatic struggle for human rights across the ages in a book that brilliantly synthesizes historical and intellectual developments from the Mesopotamian Codes of Hammurabi to today's era of globalization. As she chronicles the clash of social movements, ideas, and armies that have played a part in this struggle, Ishay illustrates how the history of human rights has evolved from one era to the next through texts, cultural traditions, and creative expression. Writing with verve and extraordinary range, she develops a framework for understanding contemporary issues from the debate over globalization to the intervention in Kosovo to the climate for human rights after September 11, 2001. The only comprehensive history of human rights available, the book will be essential reading for anyone concerned with humankind's quest for justice and dignity.

Ishay structures her chapters around six core questions that have shaped human rights debate and scholarship: What are the origins of human rights? Why did the European vision of human rights triumph over those of other civilizations? Has socialism made a lasting contribution to the legacy of human rights? Are human rights universal or culturally bound? Must human rights be sacrificed to the demands of national security? Is globalization eroding or advancing human rights? As she explores these questions, Ishay also incorporates notable documents—writings, speeches, and political statements—from activists, writers, and thinkers throughout history.
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The History of Human Rights

The History of Human Rights

From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era

With a New Preface

Micheline R. Ishay


University of California Press, one of the most distinguished university presses in the United States, enriches lives around the world by advancing scholarship in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Its activities are supported by the UC Press Foundation and by philanthropic contributions from individuals and institutions. For more information, visit

University of California Press

Berkeley and Los Angeles, California

University of California Press, Ltd.

London, England

© 2004, 2008 by Micheline R. Ishay

Excerpt from The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, copyright © 1973, 1968, 1966, 1958, 1951, 1948 by Hannah Arendt, copyright renewed by Mary McCarthy West, reprinted by permission of Harcourt, Inc.

ISBN 978-0-520-25641-5 (pbk. : alk. paper)

eISBN 978-0-520-93491-7

The Library of Congress has cataloged an earlier version of this book as follows:

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Ishay, Micheline.

The history of human rights : from ancient times to the globalization era / Micheline R. Ishay.

    p.    cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 0-520-23496-0 (alk. paper).

ISBN 0-520-23497-9 (pbk. : alk. paper)

1. Human rights—History. I. Title.

JC571.I73    2003


Manufactured in the United States of America

16  15

10  9  8  7  6  5  4

The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48–1992 (R 1997) (Permanence of Paper

For David, Adam, Elise, and their generation


Preface to the 2008 Edition



The Definition, the Argument, and Six Historical Controversies


1. Early Ethical Contributions to Human Rights

Religious and Secular Notions of Universalism

Liberty: The Origins of Tolerance

Equality: Early Notions of Economic and Social Justice

How to Promote Justice?

Fraternity, or Human Rights for Whom?

2. Human Rights and the Enlightenment: The Development of a Liberal and Secular Perspective on Human Rights

From Ancient Civilizations to the Rise of the West

Freedom of Religion and Opinion

The Right to Life

The Right to Private Property

The State and Just-War Theory

Human Rights for Whom?

3. Human Rights and the Industrial Age: The Development of a Socialist Perspective on Human Rights

The Industrial Age

Challenging the Liberal Vision of Rights

Universal Suffrage, Economic and Social Rights

Challenging Capitalism and the State

Human Rights for Whom?

4. The World Wars: The Institutionalization of International Rights and the Right to Self-Determination

The End of Empires

The Right to Self-Determination

Institutionalizing Human Rights

Human Rights for Whom?

5. Globalization and Its Impact on Human Rights

Globalization and Protest Movements

Defining Rights in the Era of Globalization

After September 11: Security versus Human Rights

Human Rights for Whom?

6. Promoting Human Rights in the Twenty-first Century: The Changing Arena of Struggle

Medievalism and the Absence of Civil Society

The Emergence of Civil Society during the Enlightenment

The Expansion of Civil Society in the Industrial Age

The Anti-Colonial Struggle

The Globalization of Civil Society? Or an Assault on the Private Realm?

Appendix: A Chronology of Events and Writings Related to Human Rights




Preface to the 2008 Edition

WHEN THIS BOOK WAS submitted to my publisher in 2002, it characterized the human rights community as fragmented into a variety of single-issue agendas, and attributed that fragmentation to factors associated with the end of the cold war and accelerating globalization. Even then, one could discern a growing fissure over a set of interrelated policy debates on important global issues. One of those debates was over globalization itself, embraced by one side as opening new space for human rights progress, and denounced by the other as a source of deepening global poverty.

Yet if this first post–cold war human rights debate could be seen retrospectively as a sign of new fault lines, no single event or issue had sufficient force to split the human rights community into two starkly opposed worldviews. That galvanizing issue, sparked by the events of September 11, would be what U.S. leaders have described as the global war on terror. During the five years following the publication of this book in the United States, a second debate now crystallized over whether the United States, the major maestro of globalization, should be seen as the global guardian of human rights or as an empire bent on economic, military, and ideological domination.

As I write this preface in August 2007, it appears that we may be at the dawn of a third debate, born out of the ashes of the American fiasco in Iraq and the resultant Democratic Party takeover of the United States Congress in the November 2006 elections. These events combined to place neo-conservative defenders of unrestrained globalization and democratization, enforceable by U.S. military power, on the defensive. This time, while the global progressive human rights community must continue to confront its old neo-liberal and neo-conservative adversaries, advocates of universal human rights are also taking up the challenge posed by religious (or cultural) fundamentalism in its Islamist and other religious extremist forms.

This foreword offers a perspective on these interacting layers of human rights debate—between globalists and anti-globalists, unilateralists and multilateralists, and between market ideology and religious fundamentalism—suggesting in all three cases that human rights progress will require moving beyond Manichean divisions. I will begin by describing the first two phases of the post–cold war debate over globalization and human rights, then move on to characterize the new debate, offering my view of the basic stance that the human rights community needs to take.


This debate is the one most familiar to those interested in the human rights implications of economic globalization, and much has been discussed in my first edition. For one side, the side with the ear of political elites throughout the developed world, the collapse of the Soviet Union opened the door to the global triumph of a free market economy.

This position has been advanced by mainstream U.S. politicians of both major political parties, who have supported free trade agreements (e.g., NAFTA and the WTO) without insisting on serious labor standards, professing along with leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair that expanded trade will ineluctably help universalize liberal notions of human rights. Those who hold this position are generally confident that economic liberalization, once it takes root in otherwise protectionist or barren economies, will promote, at least in the long run, affluent societies and stable democratic institutions.

By contrast, for the anti-globalist activists of the world social forums, globalization has shaped a new imperial economic regime, one in which the IMF, WTO, the G8, and other international institutions continue to reflect the self-interest of the wealthiest states. For anti-globalists, neo-liberalism has produced a sinister reality: one in which labor rights have been undercut and welfare policies scrapped; one in which bait-and-switch immigration policies shaped by elites in the privileged world have intensified the hardships suffered by refugees and immigrants fleeing from poverty, repression, or war; one in which the poorest countries and peoples are getting poorer in both relative and absolute terms; and one in which environmental degradation driven by pollution and deforestation has endangered the livelihood of indigenous peoples.

That leftist critique of globalization has a right-wing variant in developed states, where the primary concern is with the loss of businesses and jobs to low-wage regions. The result has sometimes been strange coalitions between left and right, as when the progressive American activist Ralph Nader joined the right-wing, nationalist leader Pat Buchanan in opposing NAFTA and the WTO. Unlike mainstream globalists, who rationalize their human rights strategies in terms of political and security rights, anti-globalists tend to highlight economic, social, and environmental rights. There is, of course, considerable middle ground between the extremes on both sides of this debate, and it is worth considering the outlines of a position around which most human rights supporters might unite.

Can one carve a position between globalists and anti-globalists?

Economic development programs, argued Nobel Prize–winning Indian economist Amartya Sen, should not primarily require the blood, sweat, and tears of the poor but should design policies that link economic growth to respect for human freedom and other central tenets of human rights.¹ Put another way, social, political, civil, and security rights are constitutive parts of development. Sen’s insistence that development policies must advance the full spectrum of universal human rights provides criteria for criticizing both sides in the debate between free-traders and anti-globalists. In a sense, he reminds us of the integrated projects of post–World War II reconstruction and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

If Sen’s position on sustainable development has gained wider currency in human rights circles, the connection between economic development and sustainable democratic transitions still needs to be strengthened. The underemphasis on economic welfare has its roots in the free market ideology that prevailed in U.S. scholarship and statecraft for decades, from the political science literature on modernization in the 1970s and 1980s to the Washington Consensus in our current era. That dominant approach to economic development myopically emphasized only two dimensions of rights: the property rights underpinning market economies and the progress toward political freedom that presumably flowed from property rights. Thus, during the cold war, when mass movements of the poor in the Third World insisted on socioeconomic rights, they encountered repression or worse. Once the cold war ended, the prevailing view was that the poorest countries and peoples could be safely ignored. The legacy of neo-liberalism, however, was not the capitalist end of history envisioned by the modernization literature, but resurgent, sometimes authoritarian left-leaning regimes in Latin America and the rise of radical Islamist movements in much of the Muslim world. Both types of movements draw support based on their attentiveness to the welfare of the poor, even as both tend to disparage the individual liberties so valued by the promoters of free markets and democratization.

A viable middle ground between pro- and anti-globalization factions would have to integrate socioeconomic rights into the globalization project. In the face of the high levels of poverty, repression, and conflict afflicting the poorest areas of the world, the success of that enterprise would require both a massive commitment of resources and the construction of practical strategies, tailored to a host of distinctive cases, that effectively address the complex interconnections between political, legal, economic, and security policies. Since an enterprise of that scale was, and remains, unrealistic, it follows that any feasible approach toward those goals would have to be highly selective, focusing on areas small enough to offer hope of tangible results.

For instance, while the United States and other powerful states evidently lack the will and resources to transform every area affected by underdevelopment and oppression, a sustained investment of political and economic resources in selected places might well create new outposts of democracy that could in turn generate further regional economic growth, democratization, and human rights. How would this start? It could take the form of New Deal–style public works projects that relieve unemployment by putting money directly into the hands of ordinary workers. These projects would be designed to build infrastructure for future economic development, such as ports, power plants, and desalinization plants, which would then stimulate public and private investment. Such outposts (in Palestine or even the Sudan, for example) could represent magnets that would then stimulate further regional economic growth, democratization, and human rights.

Empowering women should also be part of a long-term strategy to democratize the Middle East, as well as other regions of less geopolitical interest to the United States and its allies. For instance, providing means for women to earn money (with microlending, literacy efforts, vocational training, etc.) even within the world’s poorest and most repressive states can galvanize democratic forces, just as suffragette efforts stimulated democratic impulses in Western civil societies during the late nineteenth century. One needs to free women, and men will be freer to join them in challenging political oppression.

In short, the indivisibility and inalienability of security, political, social, economic, and cultural human rights objectives in all efforts (postwar reconstruction or others) should always be kept in sight. In terms of what I have called the first debate—between advocates and opponents of economic globalization—it is not impossible to conceive a reasoned synthesis that enhances economic opportunity while respecting the spectrum of universal rights.


In the wake of September 11, Afghanistan, and Iraq, U.S. foreign policy largely shifted from preoccupation with economic issues to debate over the pursuit of security, in the context of a so-called clash of cultures or civilizations. Whether grievances against the Western architects of globalization were couched in political, economic, or cultural terms, hatred and violence against the West (and particularly the United States) were now rationalized as the inevitable blowback resulting from long-standing oppression. Those sentiments in turn unleashed fear of the Muslim world, strengthened demagogic assertions of Western superiority, and made it politically viable to insist on adopting whatever means were allegedly necessary for security.

Confronting both the tragedy of September 11 and subsequent attacks, and the enormity of the American military and counterterrorism response, the pre–September 11 preoccupations of the human rights community were now overshadowed by a searing divide over a central question: the human rights implications of America’s economic superiority and global military campaign. For many on both sides of this debate, America was viewed in starkly positive or negative terms—either as a crucial entity for the worldwide advance of human rights or as an empire disposed to quash human rights in the pursuit of unlimited power.

I have elsewhere labeled the protagonists in this debate as multilateralists or Spartacists and unilateralists or Caesarists.² The Spartacist designation derives from the Thracian Spartacus, the famous leader of a slave rebellion against imperial Rome. Today’s Spartacists share an antiauthoritarian, anti-imperialist, and often isolationist view. Most Spartacists are highly critical of unfettered economic globalization, sanctioned by U.S. hegemonic influence in the cultural, political, and military realms. Human suffering, Spartacists argue, is of little concern for U.S. policy makers, who draw attention to it primarily in order to justify intervention against outlaw regimes that dare to challenge the geopolitical or economic interests of the United States and its allies. From this perspective, human rights and humanitarian rhetoric are mere subterfuges to hide imperial self-interest. Not only are their motives disingenuous, the results, including interventions against so-called rogue regimes, are likely to make human suffering worse.

On the other hand, the Caesarist worldview—named after the Roman emperor who spread republicanism with ruthless force—maintains that in a world of terrorism, rampant nationalism, civil wars, and proliferating mass destruction weapons, the United States is the only power able to counter international dangers driven by fundamentalist groups or authoritarian regimes. For suffering individuals within weaker states, Caesarists argue, there is no alternative but to gravitate within the orbit of U.S. influence, an outcome that will ultimately deliver economic and human rights benefits. As the United States wages war against anti-democratic forces, it is accepted that trampling on civil rights and international conventions may be necessary means to achieve victory. In the end, however, Caesarist foreign policies claim to extend liberty to all of humanity.

In addition to the divide over the legitimacy of U.S. assertive unilateralism, the issue of how to build a democratic culture in conflict-ridden civil societies also continues to divide the human rights community. To what extent (if any) should the United States (and its Western allies) take responsibility for nation building in the aftermath of allegedly humanitarian interventions? For Caesarists like the historian Niall Ferguson, the United States has been too long in denial of its imperial role and must learn to take seriously its formidable responsibilities in the world. It is the only power, Ferguson maintains (with other like-minded Caesarists), that has the capacity to bring prosperity, peace, and human rights to divided societies in an increasingly hostile world environment. The problem, he argues, is that the United States, unlike its predecessor, Great Britain, has lacked the will to make a long-term commitment to nation building.³

To provide insufficient troops to ensure security in the aftermath of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, or to fail to halt gross human rights violations in Liberia, Darfur, and other trouble spots of limited geopolitical importance to the United States, argue Caesarists, will hasten the demise of the American empire. The British Empire sent legions of career civil servants abroad to permanent posts, and the American empire will be short-lived if it fails to emulate that model. In that regard, it is a dangerous sign that the United States has failed to train and dispatch thousands of Arabic-speaking envoys to the Middle East, armed with the requisite skills to move its democratization agenda forward. Caesarists argue that the United States can reclaim its moral authority only by fully committing itself to the full spectrum of nation-building activities.

The prospect of such a U.S. commitment to promoting democratic development has, however, been intensely challenged by Spartacists. For Chalmers Johnson, the fact that the United States has spread hundreds of its military bases throughout geopolitically and economically strategic areas of the world is sufficient evidence of its long-standing imperialist nature.⁴ Moreover, that the United States has denied rights specified in the Geneva Convention to Guantanamo prisoners, and has conducted torture of alleged insurgents in Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere, demonstrates the emptiness of its claim to represent an empire of liberty. Spartacists add that the United States has used the war on terror to create an elaborate system of surveillance, which has enabled authorities to violate privacy rights, to harass domestic dissidents, and to deport peaceful immigrants as criminals—thereby denying fundamental rights of hospitality to foreigners.

These abuses cumulatively reveal the Janus face of the American empire’s purported good intentions. Spartacists predict that the United States will suffer other cases of blowback like the one experienced on September 11, arguing that such attacks are due not to U.S. neglect of global problems, but to the excessive and repressive nature of U.S. global commitments, as the United States supports authoritarian regimes in places like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan whenever it appears to serve its economic or geopolitical interests. That long record of support for friendly dictators throughout the cold war has culminated in the current refusal to submit to international institutions such as the International Criminal Court, preferring to withhold evidence that could implicate its own officials during truth commission investigations (in Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, and Chad among other post-authoritarian countries where the United States supported former dictators).⁵ This history, as interpreted by the Spartacists, shows all too well that the United States evades its own standards of justice while calling for democracy and human rights for the rest of the world. Even for those more inclined to acknowledge some measure of good intentions on the part of the United States, it is daunting to recognize that most U.S. military occupations did not lead to the establishment of democratic governments.⁶

While Spartacist-Caesarist debates have raged since the end of the cold war, the escalating confrontation between Spartacists (such as Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, and Eric Hobsbawm) and Caesarists (such as former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol), reached a zenith over U.S. policy toward Iraq. Indeed the Iraq debate dramatized the extent to which the division over the U.S. global role had supplanted old ideological differences over human rights. While the Caesarist human rights justification for the intervention in Iraq became the linchpin of the American neo-conservative foreign policy platform, it was also supported by many liberal and leftist human rights activists, including journalists and scholars like Michael Ignatieff and Christopher Hitchens, who regarded the approaching war in Iraq as an opportunity—whatever the role of American geopolitical interests—to eradicate a genocidal regime.

In the words of British historian Eric Hobsbawm, the question was how is the world to confront—contain—the U.S.? Some people, Hobsbawm observes, believing that they have not the power to confront the U.S., prefer to join it. More dangerous are those who hate the ideology behind the Pentagon, but support the U.S. project on the grounds that it will eliminate some local and regional injustices. This may be called an ‘imperialism’ of human rights.⁷ This position mobilized anti-war demonstrations throughout the world, and ironically was joined by the nationalist right, including U.S. politician and commentator Pat Buchanan, leader of France’s Front National Jean-Marie Le Pen, and Austrian political leader Georg Haider, who viewed the war in Iraq as America’s war against civilization.

How can the human rights community carve a strategic position between charges of indifference to human rights abuses, to which Spartacists are vulnerable, and accusations of imperialism, associated with Caesarist support for wars against tyrannical regimes? Can one be both a Spartacist and a Caesarist, or can we transcend this divide?

In the absence of a cohesive vision of human rights policy, one can deplore with the Spartacists the long record of human rights abuses in the foreign or domestic policies of all five permanent members of the UN Security Council or within NATO, supporting with Caesarists those instances when military action, even if unilateral, advances the causes of human rights, while accepting the general principle that the United Nations and local, motivated NGOs are preferable mechanisms for resolving humanitarian crises.

If multilateralism offers in principle a better way to deal with humanitarian crises from Bosnia to Iraq, one should recognize that the United Nations has not shown the level of credibility and reliable musculature needed to confront these crises. Needless to say, international legal documents have hardly provided clear guidelines to human rights sympathizers. For instance, while the UN charter decreed the inviolability of sovereign states, the Convention against Genocide permitted the indictment of individuals charged with crimes against humanity, thereby circumventing state authority. Further, over the years, the members of the UN Security Council failed to show the level of commitment to human rights envisioned by the founders of the United Nations, and the international body consequently attracted criticism from human rights supporters.

If each humanitarian crisis since the cold war has prompted speculation over how best to redesign new international or multilateral institutions, such institutional questions need to be addressed within the context of today’s overriding challenges. In the ordre du jour, it is the confrontation of the forces of market fundamentalism and those of religious fundamentalism that prod us toward an engagement in a third debate.


To a substantial degree, the outcome of the Caesarist-Spartacist debate depended on U.S. behavior and its degree of success in Iraq. As the occupation unfolded, the occupiers’ moral failure, exemplified by Abu Ghraib, their heedlessness of the economic needs of ordinary Iraqis, and other manifestations of incompetence by the Bush administration have combined substantially to discredit the Caesarist perspective, as Spartacist Democrats took over Congress, more and more American Republicans felt deserted by their president, and the neo-conservatives descended into internal bickering.

Yet lest we find ourselves celebrating the prospective defeat of imperialism in Iraq, it is worth reminding ourselves that in this case the most dynamic global enemies of George W. Bush are not themselves champions of human rights. Instead, the rising fortunes of the Taliban in Afghanistan, of Ahmadinejad in Iran, of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and of Al Qaeda’s numerous branches and allied groups represent the advance of movements that violently repudiate universal human rights, and that embrace forms of mystical, violent irrationalism that bear many of the features of Western historical fascism. If neo-liberalism and then neo-conservatism unwittingly nourished these dark forces, it is surely insufficient to condemn the neocons, celebrate the political downfall of George W. Bush’s tragic presidency, and self-righteously withdraw from global engagement. In that sense, the human rights community faces a twofold challenge: confronting the fundamentalism of the market while simultaneously confronting the belligerent fundamentalism of religions.

Leaders of the United States and Great Britain Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher launched what George Soros would later call market fundamentalism. Market fundamentalism, according to Soros, is the belief that competitive markets are always right–or at least they produce results that cannot be improved. The financial markets, in particular are supposed to bring prosperity and stability–the more so, if they are completely free from government interference in their operation and unrestricted in their global reach.⁸ But as Soros has pointed out, market fundamentalism, by appealing to the concept of equilibrium, misinterprets the causes of economic growth. It is not the tendency of equilibrium that creates wealth but the release of energies, he explained. Wealth creation is a dynamic process. It does not regulate itself, and does not ensure social justice.

Market fundamentalism, one might add, is worse than bad economics. Its ideological prevalence, starting in the 1980s, reinforced the dark aspects of Western values in the eyes of the world’s poor. It was the antithesis of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal call to achieve freedom from want, replacing it with Gordon Gekko’s proclamation to a crowd of stockholders in the movie Wall Street that greed . . . is good.

That distorted formulation of Western values provided a perfect opportunity for Islamist fundamentalists to fill the void left by Western abandonment of the poor. Thus Islamist clerics in the Middle East denounce capitalists as individuals devoted to personal profit, as agents driven by crass materialism and unlimited self-interest. These evils, and/or other conspiratorial designs, are attributed in large measure to Jews, who must be stripped of their enormous power and perhaps destroyed completely. Other religious, ethnic, and national groups are similarly implicated. From these religious fundamentalist perspectives, in their Islamist or other religious forms, democracy is despicable, since it implies that individual preferences can be allowed to interfere with the higher communal purpose, which is fully comprehended only by the leader. Yet for Islamist fundamentalists, it is a moral obligation to meet the basic needs of ordinary people. The fact that such needs were so neglected, first by colonialists and then by corrupt secular elites, has given these fundamentalists a powerful weapon with which to spread their beliefs.

Thus, if laissez-faire is the first commandment of globalization proselytes, fundamentalists draw from religious texts the obligation of economic altruism and along with it, belligerence against infidels as the antidotes to Western greed and decadence. Without overstating the parallel between the dogmatism of market fundamentalism and that of religious fundamentalism, can we carve a new space beyond the Manichean world of both fundamentalisms? Can human rights today confront with equal resolve the abuses associated with globalization and the danger posed by anti-Enlightenment forces? That danger, it should be stressed, stems not only from the Muslim world, since Judaism, Christianity, and other religions have also produced anti-Enlightenment fundamentalist movements, which both attack moderate voices within their own religions and join in the general assault on secular thought.

One can only hope that the human rights community can move beyond such schisms generated over globalization or American power, and engage the question of how best to promote a universal agenda that advances freedom, economic justice, and peace. In the interest of stimulating such a third debate, I think it is reasonable to ask whether a new project, modeled on the post–World War II efforts in Europe (and parts of East Asia), might help provide guidelines. I will conclude by briefly touching on the lessons of those postwar policies for addressing the challenges posed by greed, the arrogance of power, and fundamentalism in our current era of globalization.

The efforts finally to purge Europe of extreme nationalism and fascism after World War II were monumental, including Bretton Woods, the establishment of the UN, the UNESCO Project, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Marshall Plan, plans that included the creation of a democratic and prosperous Germany. In terms of the domestic societies throughout Western Europe, it was now fully recognized that stability and democratic governance would include a strong representation of the interests of the working class, including welfare state standards of health, education, and other social rights that would be extended even to the poorest elements of society. The spectrum of practical steps undertaken within Europe received their most powerful affirmation in the form of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The result was the long-term consolidation of strong civil societies in Europe, growing prosperity, and the adoption of the principles contained in the Universal Declaration (and a host of successor documents) as the basis for legitimate behavior by national governments and the European Community.

Yet despite the proclaimed universality of that United Nations document, the United States and its allies never sought to fashion a Global New Deal that would extend the same principles to what was about to become known as the Third World. Instead, as we all know, the United States assisted nearly every anti-Soviet regime, no matter how repressive, and supported insurgencies against pro-Soviet regimes, no matter who was leading the fight. In the cold war’s final superpower confrontation, the United States extended that principle, of course, to helping the cause of bin Laden and his fellow mujahideen in Afghanistan.

We have now reaped the harvest of that failure to address belligerent fundamentalism in much of the less developed world. While addressing that failure will require a variety of policies adapted to a host of unique circumstances, I would submit that the essence of a viable strategy for moving forward can be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

That declaration does not provide a blueprint for policy, but it does offer the most viable framework for defeating totalitarian ideologies. One way of describing that framework is to note that the document crystallized the crucial prerequisites for human dignity, hitherto expressed in different religious and ideological worldviews, and synthesized them in the form of inalienable and indivisible human rights. The implication was that one could not privilege one form of dignity, translated as one cluster of rights, over another form of dignity, protected by another family of rights. Thus security, civil, and political rights could not be favored over social and economic rights, and so forth. Put another way, it is an unacceptable assault upon one’s dignity for a person to be forbidden to speak her mind or to participate in political life, or to be forced by hunger to beg for food, or to be subjected to torture or threatened with death. In that sense, the notion that human rights is the protection of some types of fundamental rights but not others or is for some people but not others is simply absurd.

From the Palestinian territories to Iraq to Lebanon, the conservatives of the current American administration have privileged dignity as defined in terms of political rights over social and economic rights, and have inadvertently provided opportunities for fundamentalist groups, which have gained grassroots support thanks largely to their social welfare organizations. Just as Mussolini borrowed that part of socialist doctrine that called for addressing the burdens of ordinary people and the poor, groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army have used the provision of welfare as a foundation for recruitment. To be successful, a long-term strategy for uprooting terror, despair, and poverty cannot afford to pick and choose among categories of human rights.

Building on the spirit and policies of the post–World War II period, an effective global New Deal strategy will need to address the nexus between the global economy, civil society, and radical religious or nationalist ideologies. That will mean transcending the first debate over globalization and human rights, in the sense that the choice will not be between neo-liberal globalization and respect for local power structures and cultures, but over what forms of globalization, preferably synchronized with security, sustainable economic development, and political rights, can best advance the spectrum of universal human rights. It will also mean overcoming the second debate’s preoccupation with the guilt or innocence of the lone superpower, and will concentrate on assessing which combination of institutional means can most effectively advance a comprehensive human rights agenda.

That does not mean that the human rights community can set aside its unfinished task of taking on the dark sides of globalization and American power. It does propose a shift toward the more forward-looking project of reviving the vision set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In doing so, the human rights community achieves 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.

August 2007


1. See Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Anchor Books, 1999).

2. Micheline Ishay, Debating Globalization and Intervention: Spartacists versus Caesarists, in The Human Rights Reader: Major Political Essays, Speeches, and Documents from Ancient Times to the Present, 2d ed. (New York: Routledge, 2007), 465–474.

3. Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).

4. Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004).

5. Priscilla B. Hayner, Unspeakable Truth: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity (New York: Routledge, 2001), 242–243.

6. Minxin Pei, Lessons from the Past: The American Record of Nation-Building (Policy Brief, No. 24, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, D.C., April 2003).

7. Eric Hobsbawm, America’s Imperial Delusion, The Guardian, June 15, 2003.

8. George Soros, Capitalism’s Last Chance, Foreign Policy no. 113 (Winter 1998–1999): 55–66.

9. George Soros, Open Society (New York: Public Affairs, 2000), 144.


THIS BOOK OWES A GREAT DEAL to the criticisms and suggestions of the many individuals who read earlier drafts. I want first to thank David Goldfischer, not just for his careful reading, insightful comments, and meticulous editing, but also for being a most magnificent intellectual and emotional partner. To him, and to our two wonderful children, Adam and Elise, and their generation, I dedicate this book.

I am also especially indebted to Stephen Bronner, Ginni Ishimatsu, and John Vail for their constructive criticisms and suggestions on the manuscript and for their steadfast friendship; to Sasha Breger, Lisa Burke, Eric Fattor, Bobby Pace, Joel Pruce, Chris Saeger, and Amentahru Wahlrab for their invaluable and diligent assistance with my research; to Suzanne Knott and Jan Spauschus for their judicious and thorough copyediting; and to my very able editor Reed Malcolm for his suggestions, enthusiasm, and support throughout this project.

In addition, I would like to thank many friends, colleagues, and students for their help, suggestions, and comments on parts of this book: Marc Agi, Shlomo Avineri, Benjamin Barber, Manisha Desai, Jack Donnelly, John Ehrenberg, Tom Farer, Michael Forman, Alan Gilbert, Russell Hardin, Angelique Haugeraud, Paul Kan, Max Likin, David Ost, Steve Roach, Greg Robbins, Rhoda Singer, Manfred Steger, Seth Ward, and Elizabeth Wolf. I would like also to thank Buchanan Sharp and my anonymous reviewers for their recommendations and my students, who, throughout the years, helped in the classroom in more ways than they can imagine.

I owe special thanks to my mother, Sheila Bazini, for her unwavering emotional support. Finally, I want to thank my father, Edmond Ishay, for inspiring my passion for human rights, showing me how to fight for justice, and believing in all my intellectual endeavors.


Angelus Novus by Paul Klee, 1920. Courtesy of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

THERE ARE MANY HISTORIES . While some are written from the vantage point of the conquerors and oppressors, this book belongs to another tradition: that which gives voice to the oppressed. Rather than revel in the victors’ parading of their slaves and the defeated, it harvests the hopes of the victims. It is not mesmerized by orators’ charisma but remains attentive to the recurring dissonance between self-satisfied rhetoric and social reality. It does not leave optimism regarding humankind’s noblest aspirations in the dustbin of history but follows messengers of hope through the cynicism characterizing human tyranny. It does not privilege the messianic aspirations of a single generation but recognizes the dedication of a host of human rights couriers over time.

Human rights are thus seen here as 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. Inspired by a critical theoretical approach, this book presupposes that ideas and events are carried over from one era to another, through the media of historical texts, cultural traditions, architecture, and artistic displays. In this respect, it departs from realist perspectives on history, which privilege power over morality as the ultimate driving force of history, or postmodern interpretations of history, which question the progressive linearity of events in favor of a disconnected understanding of local discourses.¹ If the spirit of a time seems to meander whimsically and dangerously around the volcanic craters of social upheavals, it is transmitted consciously and unconsciously from one generation to another, carrying the scars of its tumultuous past. There is no document of civilization, the critical theorist Walter Benjamin reminds us, which is not at the same time a document of barbarism; barbarism taints also the style in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.

Barbarian and repressive policies, however, also tend to shape the direction of the social reaction. A human rights document may be marred by barbarism, yet, adding to Benjamin’s observation, it is also a barometer of human rights progress. One may thus think of the history of human rights as a journey guided by lampposts across ruins left behind by ravaging and insatiable storms. In Benjamin’s eloquent description of Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus (The angel of history):

[The] face [of the angel of history] is turned toward the past. Where we perceived a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.²


Human rights are rights held by individuals simply because they are part of the human species. They are rights shared equally by everyone regardless of sex, race, nationality, and economic background. They are universal in content. Across the centuries, conflicting political traditions have elaborated different components of human rights or differed over which elements had priority. In our day, the manifold meanings of human rights reflect the process of historical continuity and change that helped shape their present substance and helped form the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948. René Cassin, one of the main drafters of the document, outlined the central tenets of human rights, comparing the declaration to the portico of a temple.

Drawing on the battle cry of the French Revolution, Cassin identified the four pillars of the declaration as dignity, liberty, equality, and brotherhood. The twenty-seven articles of the declaration were divided among these four pillars. While Cassin divided the articles conceptually, a modest redivision of the Declaration’s articles among those pillars enables us to view them in terms of major historical milestones in the advance of human rights. Under this revised scheme, a first pillar, constructed out of the first two articles, stands for human dignity, which is shared by all individuals regardless of race, religion, creed, nationality, social origin, or sex; a second pillar, composed of articles 3–19 of the declaration, invokes the first generation of civil liberties and other liberal rights that were fought for during the Enlightenment; a third pillar, consisting of articles 20–26, addresses the second generation of rights, those related to political, social, and economic equity and championed during the industrial revolution; the fourth, representing articles 27–28, focuses on the third generation of rights, those associated with communal and national solidarity as advocated during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century and throughout the post-colonial era. In a sense, the sequence of the articles corresponds to the historical appearance of changing visions of universal rights.³

Yet in historical reality, each major stride forward was followed by severe setbacks. The universalism of human rights brandished during the French Revolution was slowly superseded by a nationalist reaction incubated during Napoleon’s conquests, just as the internationalist hopes of socialist human rights advocates were drowned in a tidal wave of nationalism at the approach of World War I. The human rights aspirations of the Bolshevik Revolution and of two liberal sister institutions, the League of Nations and the International Labor Organization (ILO), were crushed by the rise of Stalinism and fascism during the interwar period; the establishment of the United Nations (UN) and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were eclipsed by intensifying nationalism in the emerging Third World and global competition between two nuclear-armed superpowers. Finally, the triumphant claims made after 1989 that human rights would blossom in an unfettered global market economy were soon drowned out by rising nationalism in the former Soviet Union, Africa, the Balkans, and beyond.

This is not to say that reactionary forces have completely nullified each phase of progress in human rights. Rather, history preserves the human rights record as each generation builds on the hopes and achievements of its predecessors while struggling to free itself from authoritarianism and improve its social conditions. Yet throughout history, human rights projects—whether liberal, socialist, or Third World in origin—have generated contradictions concerning both how to promote human rights and who should be endowed with equal human rights. For instance, as it became clear during the nineteenth century that the masses of ordinary working people had been excluded from the liberal vision of the Enlightenment, a new socialist conception of internationalism laid claim to universal human rights promises. Furthermore, while the rise of the modern state was originally justified by claims that it would promote universal human rights, the subsequent prevalence of realpolitik and particularism inspired nineteenth- and twentieth-century efforts to embody universalism in a succession of international organizations.

If inconsistencies within each project exposed the boundaries of this or that worldview, they also moved the history of human rights forward. At the same time, the contradictory achievements of each human rights project contributed to the rise of nationalism and cultural rights. Ironically, these particularist perspectives, though directed against universalist promises, became an integral part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent human rights covenants, and have remained a continuing source of division within the human rights community.

Using the main points developed in the UN Declaration of Human Rights to chronicle the clashes of ideas, social movements, and armies that comprise the history of human rights, this book also engages six core controversies over human rights that have shaped human rights debate and scholarship. Thus, the historical record is offered in part to clarify several misconceptions that persist both within and outside the human rights community.

The first controversy concerns the origins of human rights. I argue that despite any temptation—especially after the events of September 11, 2001—to view religion as antithetical to a secular view of universal rights, each great religion contains important humanistic elements that anticipated our modern conceptions of rights. This does not mean that all religious contributions were equal, however, or that there is a perfect continuum from ancient to modern thinking about human rights (see chapter 1). The second controversy concerns the claim, which I endorse, that our modern conception of rights, wherever in the world it may be voiced, is predominantly European in origin (see chapter 2). To say that our current views of universal rights originated in the West, however, should not imply that Western rights are reducible to free-market liberalism. Despite faddish assertions that the end of the cold war represented liberalism’s victory over the socialist challenge to human rights, the human rights vision currently depicted as liberal was in fact indelibly molded by the socialist ideals that grew out of nineteenth-century industrialization. The extent of modern liberalism’s indebtedness to socialist thought represents the third controversy over human rights (see chapter 3).

The twentieth century witnessed popular assertions that cultural rights are necessary defenses against either liberal or socialist conceptions of human rights, since these conceptions presumably represent the oppressive legacy of Western domination of the rest of the world. Reminding the reader that nationalist and culturally focused arguments originated within nineteenth-century Europe, I take the position in this fourth controversy that demands for cultural rights must always be informed by and checked against a universalist perspective of human rights (see chapters 3, 4, and 5). At a time when proclamations of an end of history have been mocked by terrorists who, more dramatically than ever before, reject the very notion of universal rights, and when political realists triumphantly reassert that history is only the dismal repetition of power struggles and wars, it may be questionable, as the fifth controversy considers, whether there is such a thing as historical progress. Here, I will argue that human rights are not antithetical to realism, but rather complementary to sound realist policies. Further, in the post–September 11 environment, it is precisely progress in the worldwide implementation of universal rights that will most reliably advance the security goals so cherished by realists (see chapter 5). Finally, carving a middle position in a sixth controversial debate over whether globalization is a boon or a threat from a human rights perspective, this book draws on the legacy of history to consider broad strategies for the advancement of human rights in the twenty-first century (see chapters 5 and 6).

The Origins of Human Rights

When embarking on a history of human rights, the first question one confronts is: where does that history begin? It is a politically charged question, as difficult to answer as the one addressing the end of history. The question of the end of history has always suggested the triumph of one particular worldview over another: Friedrich Hegel’s vision of history ending with the birth of the Prussian state celebrated the German liberal and cultural views of his time over others; Karl Marx’s prediction that history would end with the withering of the state and the birth of a classless society emerged from a deepening struggle against the abuses of early industrialization; and Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the end of history exemplified liberal euphoria in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse. Similarly, the question of the beginning of a history tends to privilege a specific status quo or value system against possible challengers or to legitimize the claims of neglected agents of history. It is in this context that one can understand the fight between religious creationists and evolutionary Darwinists in American schools, and the clash between some defenders of the Western canon and some advocates of African and Third World studies.

Tracing the origins and evolution of human rights will inescapably invite a similar debate. Those who are skeptical about the achievements of Western civilization are correct to point out that current notions of morality cannot be associated solely with European history. Modern ethics is in fact indebted to a worldwide spectrum of both secular and religious traditions. Thus, the concepts of progressive punishment and justice were professed by Hammurabi’s Code of ancient Babylon; the Hindu and Buddhist religions offered the earliest defenses of the ecosystem; Confucianism promoted mass education; the ancient Greeks and Romans endorsed natural laws and the capacity of every individual to reason; Christianity and Islam each encouraged human solidarity, just as both considered the problem of moral conduct in wartime.

The first chapter of this book documents such connections between ancient values and modern human rights. Notwithstanding the different rituals and moral priorities associated with each of these traditions, all share basic views of a common good. This of course should not imply that all individuals were perceived as equal under any ancient religious or secular aegis. From Hammurabi’s Code to the New Testament to the Quran, one can identify a common disdain toward indentured servants (or slaves), women, and homosexuals—all were excluded from equal social benefits. While emphasizing a universal moral embrace, all great civilizations have thus tended to rationalize unequal entitlements for the weak or the inferior. Yet while such similarities are noteworthy, they should not overshadow one of history’s most consequential realities: it has been the influence of the West, including the influence of the Western concept of universal rights, that has prevailed.

The Enlightenment Legacy of Human Rights

If the civilizations and ethical contributions of China, India, and the Muslim world towered over those of medieval Europe, it is equally true that the legacy of the European Enlightenment, for our current understanding of human rights, supersedes other influences. The necessary conditions for the Enlightenment, which combined to bring an end to the Middle Ages in Europe, included the scientific revolution, the rise of mercantilism, the launching of maritime explorations of the globe, the consolidation of the nation-state, and the emergence of a middle class. These developments stimulated the expansion of Western power even as they created propitious prospects for the development of modern conceptions of human rights. They ultimately shattered feudalism and challenged the previously uncontested divine rights of kings.

As Europe was plagued by religious wars pitting Catholics and Protestants in a struggle to redefine religious and political structures, human rights visionaries like Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, Emmerich de Vattel, and René Descartes constructed a new secular language, affirming a common humanity that transcended religious sectarianism. Over the next two centuries, revolutionaries in England, America, and France would use a similar discourse to fight aristocratic privileges or colonial authority and to reorganize their societies based on human rights principles. Armed with the scientific confidence of their era, they struggled for the right to life, for freedom of religion and opinion, and for property rights.

Notwithstanding the incontestable debt of modern conceptions of human rights to the European Enlightenment, the positive legacy of that era remains widely contested. Many rightly argue that the Enlightenment did not fulfill its universal human rights promises. In the early nineteenth century, slavery continued in the European colonies and in America. Throughout the European dominated world (with the exception of revolutionary France), women had failed to achieve equal rights with men, propertyless men were denied the right to vote and other political rights, children’s rights continued to be usurped, and the right to sexual preference was not even considered. Given those shortcomings, critics argue that the Enlightenment human rights legacy represents little more than an imperialist masquerade aimed at subduing the rest of the world under the pretense of promoting universality.

While the development of capitalism in Europe contributed to the circumstances necessary for the development of a secular and universal language of human rights, the early European liberal agenda inadvertently taught that very language to its challengers. Thus, the international language of power and the language of resistance were simultaneously born in the cradle of the European Enlightenment. The Enlightenment thinkers not only invented the language of human rights discourse, they discussed issues that continue to preoccupy current human rights debates. Now as then, we find ourselves pondering the role of the state as both the guardian of basic rights and as the behemoth against which one’s rights need to be defended. Both during the Enlightenment and today, this dual allegiance to one’s state and to universal human rights has contributed to the perpetuation of a double standard of moral behavior in which various appeals to human rights obligations remain subordinated to the national interest. Further, we are still embroiled in Enlightenment debates over whether a laissez-faire approach to markets is the best way to promote democratic institutions and global peace, as Immanuel Kant and Thomas Paine contended, and we remain engaged in the Enlightenment argument over when and how one may justly wage war. The current forms of these debates, one should add, are not merely a contemporary variant of the liberal tradition but have been modified and enriched by the socialist contribution.

The Socialist Contribution to Human Rights

The nineteenth-century industrial revolution and the growth of the labor movement opened the gates of freedom to previously marginalized individuals who challenged the classical liberal economic conception of social justice. Despite the important socialist contribution to human rights discourse, the human rights legacy of the socialist—and especially the Marxist—tradition is today widely dismissed. Bearing in mind the atrocities that have been committed by communist regimes in the name of human rights, this book nevertheless attempts to correct the historical record by showing that the struggles for universal suffrage, social justice, and workers’ rights—principles endorsed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (articles 18–21) and in the two International Covenants adopted by the United Nations in 1966—were socialist in origin.

Indeed, the Chartists in England and the European labor parties played a large role in the campaign for voting and social rights. Disenfranchised from the political process, propertyless workers realized that without a political voice, they would not be able to address the widening economic gap between themselves and the rising industrial capitalists. In other words, the historical struggle for universal suffrage was launched by the Chartist and socialist movements. As Marx put it in the New York Daily Tribune in 1850, The carrying of universal suffrage in England . . . [is] a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honored with that name on the Continent.

While liberals retained their preoccupation with liberty, Chartists and socialists focused on the troubling possibility that economic inequity could make liberty a hollow concept—a belief that resonated powerfully with the bourgeoning class of urban workingmen and workingwomen. In this sense, socialists became legitimate heirs of the Enlightenment, applying the universal promises of liberté, égalité, fraternité to the political realities of