Samuel Moyn


On his book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History

Cover Interview of October 24, 2010

A close-up

I would probably draw my reader’s attention to a chart on p. 231 that I initially made when I got the intuition that “human rights” were far more important in the 1970s than ever before.

The chart depicts the number of “hits” on the phrase human rights in the London Times and the New York Times across modern history.  Before the 1940s, there is a flat line at zero.  In the 1940s, there is a blip.  In 1977, in both papers, there is a massive spike.  In the New York Times that year, the phrase “human rights” appeared five times more frequently than in any prior year.  And in neither paper did the usage of the phrase ever return to its prior levels—including the highest levels of the 1940s.

When I first saw chart, I felt it pointed in the right direction, as well as opening considerable new questions.

One fascinating topic this helps think about is why human rights were in decline in and through the decolonization process.

After all, as Roland Burke’s excellent recent book featured on this site suggests, and my research confirms, anticolonialists at the United Nations—once their nations were admitted to vote—transformed the notion of human rights beyond the form it had taken in the 1940s.  They did so by reimporting the right of self-determination that human rights had begun their career by replacing.

This does not mean, of course, that human rights ever occupied the center of anticolonialist ideology in the post-World War II era.  And much more important, the UN events both Burke and I chronicle failed to spark a human rights movement in the developed West.

In fact, as I show in my book, an important feature of the 1970s turning point is how deeply many observers felt that human rights had to be reclaimed from their “capture” at the UN by forces who were selective and hypocritical in their eyes.  This reclamation is linked to the massive spike of interest in human rights in the era.

Along with the general collapse of other forms of idealism, then, human rights came home to many in the West not because of anticolonialism, but because the romance of anticolonialism was seen to have failed.  It is no accident that, for Westerners, human rights are still mostly for export, mostly to the places they once ruled.