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On December 10, 1948, the general assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This landmark document, which noted scholar of international law, Louis Henkin, called “the scriptures” of the human rights movement, is highly influential in international humanitarianism and philanthropy (Henkin, 2000, pp. 3–12). However, a “new school” of rights historiography notes that the term “human rights” is scarce in the first half of the 20th century. A loose-knit community of “Christian personalists” is one of the few sources for human rights advocacy in the lead-up to the UDHR (Moyn, 2010).
Yet, new school historiography has, to date, not situated the unexpected advent of human rights prior to the UDHR in the milieu of the 1930s and 1940s. Those two decades saw a tremendous surge of diagnoses of crisis in humanity and civilization; and, also, myriad proposals to construct societies that would more effectively protect and promote human welfare. Sources as diverse as the Organization of American States, the American Anthropological Association, H.G. Wells, and W.H. Auden are among the many voices involved in this broad project. Furthermore, human rights historiography has not connected the evolution of the idea of human rights in this period to the changing conception of states vis-à-vis individuals. The Great Depression spurred “a shift from the state-as-night-watchman to the state-as-caretaker;” and this shift was not limited to the United States (Barnett & Stein, 2012, p. 99). As such, the relationship between the individual, civil society, and the state evolved dramatically.
This paper adds to our understanding of one of the most important periods in the history of human rights. Moreover, it connects directly to the study of the third or philanthropic sector in two ways. Firstly, the advent of human rights is a powerful example of the innovative response of civil society to war and other crises. In the darkest of situations, voluntary action spurs innovation in thought and practice. Secondly, this paper increases our understanding of one of the most important ideals, human rights, that informs the post-WWII proliferation of international humanitarianism and philanthropy.