In just a few short weeks, the world will celebrate the sixty-second anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Adopted by the United Nations on December 10th, 1948, the document ushered in an unprecedented era of international rights norms that has since culminated in the prominence of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
What Samuel Moyn argues in his book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, is that the thematic line running from the UDHR’s adoption in 1948 through today is misrepresented in the nascent field of human rights studies. Although cemented now as the defining moment that gave human rights its beginning, the Universal Declaration’s appearance was, Moyn insists, “less the annunciation of a new age than a funereal wreath laid on the grave of wartime hopes.”
This is a decidedly irreverent perspective on a movement whose brief and explosive history has (especially in recent years) been lionized as proof of civilization’s continuing evolution. But Moyn is certain that these celebrants of human rights’ march to glory have it all wrong. In fact, he argues, the UDHR was, if anything, more detrimental than it was helpful in facilitating the cause of human rights as it is known today. The UDHR’s adoption “had come at the price of legal enforceability:” by its inability to transcend ancient notions of state sovereignty, the declaration in effect bequeathed to nation-states the power of adjudication over their own adherence to human rights standards. Moyn’s contention revolves around the fact that world leaders in the 1940s were understandably reluctant to cede any jurisdiction to the whims of a supranational institution, notwithstanding (or perhaps directly due to) its supposed impartiality.
I found the author’s thesis compelling at first, as he explicitly delineated the prevailing global consensus of political leaders in the post-World War II era: a strong desire for peace was complemented by a profound wariness of others’ intentions. In such an environment, the idea of subordinating a national legal framework to an international structure — especially one in which the state itself could be held blameworthy — was not an attractive proposition to any elites. And thus was born the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document whose noble goals disguised an impotent enforcement mechanism.
But Samuel Moyn’s continued pounding on the heads of his readers quickly grows old. I cannot count the number of times (or the plethora of ways) he tries to convince his readers that today’s edition of human rights bears little resemblance to, or is only a distant relative of, that of the 1940s. “As of 1945,” Moyn writes in one instance, “human rights were already on the way out for the few international lawyers who had made them central in wartime.” Elsewhere: “Instead of turning to history to monumentalize human rights by rooting them deep in the past, it is much better to acknowledge how recent and contingent they really are.” And, “what mattered most of all about the human rights moment of the 1940s, in truth, is not that it happened, but that — like the even deeper past — it had to be reinvented, not merely retrieved, after the fact.”
Virtually nothing is as consistently unsurprising as professorial loquacity. But even among academics, Moyn tests the limits of repetition. His mantra seems to have been: if something is worth writing, it’s worth writing one hundred times. In this regard, then, he has succeeded. Unfortunately, much like human rights themselves for a time, Moyn proves far more adept at defining their history negatively than positively. It is obvious that he considers the UDHR only nominally relevant in jump-starting the human rights movement; what is less transparent is his perspective on its true origins.
Human rights constitute the eponymous last utopia of his book’s title, but Samuel Moyn does little with this concept other than to restate it over and over (just as he does with his repudiations of the movement’s alleged foundation myth). “When the history of human rights acknowledges how recently they came to the world,” Moyn writes, “it focuses not simply on the crisis of the nation-state, but on the collapse of alternative internationalisms — global visions that were powerful for so long in spite of not featuring individual rights.” It was, in a sense, the worldwide disillusionment with grandiose visions of the past that gradually led to the introduction of human rights as a viable alternative. It offered a (facially) moral ideal where before had existed only political ones.
In short, “human rights were born as the last utopia — but one day another may appear.” Other than brief mentions (and like so much else in The Last Utopia), Samuel Moyn leaves this final speculation largely unaddressed. As to the idea that modern human rights came about due to the Universal Declaration of Rights, however: well, that horse has already been beaten quite to death.