The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), by Micheline Ishay

reviewed by
Anand Bertrand Commissiong

Judging by the queries about the book from usually indifferent New York City Subway riders, The History of Human Rights certainly has an interested audience outside the academy. To be sure, considering the “slaughter bench of history,” and the twentieth century’s innovations of mass murder, the development and institutionalization of human rights the book charts represent remarkable achievements. But institutionalization is not the same as compliance. Thus what may account for my fellow travelers’ interest is that, as immigrants from developing countries, they are probably well aware that the mid-twentieth century’s human rights victories proved incapable of halting atrocities perpetrated after their ratification. For while an acknowledged genocide in western Sudan rages, economic disparities continue to increase globally as the richest, most powerful nation on earth is engaged in an ill conceived war initiated on the most flimsy pretexts. Speaking in this context, Micheline Ishay provides a necessary and refreshingly accessible study.
The account begins with a brief survey of religious and tradition-based human rights forerunners. Concentrating mostly in Europe and North America, it in turn jumps ahead to seventeenth and eighteenth century innovations, nineteenth century industrialization and nation-state consolidation, and the wars and other economic and identity-based conflicts of the twentieth. For Ishay this is no necessary historical progression. Throughout, she reminds us of the incompleteness of human rights struggles. Each substantive chapter ends with the discordant refrain, “Human Rights for Whom?” And in relating the dynamic expansion and contraction of ideas about and applications of rights, these sections not only identify those yet to be included in the larger theme but usefully attempt to explain why they were excluded.

The discussion of religious and tradition-based precursors demonstrates that the peoples of the Earth do share a common concerns with the welfare of humanity. In referencing these early articulations, Ishay follows the philosophers who advised the authors of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the chapter is also the least effective in terms of explicating the differences, as well as the nuances (some would say contradictions), among religious formulations. For instance, the Biblical injunction “Thou shalt not kill,” may be read, as Ishay does here, as prefiguring the right to one’s life. (19) However, it may also be understood as the injunction of an omnipotent god jealously guarding his ultimate power. In the latter, god gives life its worth, but in most modern human rights formulations, human life has unconditional worth. Nonetheless, because the early religious incarnation protecting individuals and whole peoples was by divine dicta, few traditions had independent, publicly accessible ways of resolving conflicts between the individual and the community: judgments were literally pronounced ex cathedra. Except in instances of aristocratic assertion, individual dissent was difficult. In the West, this limitation existed throughout the era of imperial Church hegemony. Critical changes in these relations developed, however, when internal disputes over the issue of conscience and justification eventually surfaced in the Reformation.

The resultant religious and dynastic wars precipitated a change in the reliance on a benevolent divine will supporting these nascent human rights, necessitating some other anthropocentric basis. Appeals to natural law in an emerging, largely secular space in western Europe and North America constituted a public sphere of exchange increasingly unfettered by the domination of the Church. This new public sought to explicate how state power, which was necessary to guarantee the emerging rights, could be balanced with protections against illegitimate extensions of that power. Although Western conceptions of individual rights and just war theories grew out of the religious conflicts in early modern Europe, other factors contributed to altering the narrow focus on conscience and religious reform producing substantively new universalist principles. The transformation of natural law from a strictly legal to a rights-based conception occurred in this period (D’Entrèves). Ishay points to four concurrent transformative, intertwined developments: modern science, a developing mercantile system, the great exploratory voyages that began the effective shrinking of the world, and the emerging middle class. (64–65) Over four centuries, these unprecedented social, political and economic ruptures helped create or consolidate the new political entity of the nation-state. While the expanding Reformation undermined Church authority, for example, a rising mercantilism fueled by capital in part from overseas plunder destabilized the feudal socioeconomic order. The relation of the emerging mercantile class to nation-state foundation and to the development of rights feature critically in the conflicts that grew in the nineteenth century and remained unresolved for the twentieth.

With the rise of nineteenth century industrial capital and a growing, exploited working class, human rights necessarily took on a socialist vocabulary. This is the book’s most important historical point. Ishay’s well documented treatment demonstrates “that the struggle for universal suffrage, social justice, and workers’ rights—principles endorsed by the two International Covenants adopted by the United Nations in 1966—were socialist in origin.” (119) The early nineteenth century’s most significant rights contraction resulted from the Congress of Vienna, which sought the reimposition of old monarchic and aristocratic structures. Particularly in Germany, Hungary and Italy, it denied nationalists’ yearning for popular self-determination inspired by the French Revolution. However, many important expansions in rights resulted from subsequent alliances between liberal nationalist and more radical socialist forces. One such case was the French Chartist movement (People’s Charter 1837) that was, if not socialist, “a working-class movement radicalized by its political experience.” (123) In 1848, a far-reaching, popular uprising pushed human rights further still. Eventually, most of these popular movements were curtailed. And after the massacre and exile of the June Days protests, a new, more radical socialist wing supplanted the coalition strategy initiated by early socialist reformers such as Claude Henri Saint-Simon.

Yet even this radical resurgence marked by the 1871 Paris Commune’s demands for more comprehensive reforms were soon crushed. For Marx and Engels, these failures resulted from liberals’ betrayals of their own principles and the continued divisive influence of religious and nationalist identities. But the Paris Commune’s defeat did not mark the end. It inspired the labor movement for almost a century afterward, and the decades following the suppression saw the organization of labor parties in several countries that exist to this day. This was particularly significant as all males finally gained the right to vote in many Western states by the end of the nineteenth century. However, despite such gains, the nearly complete formal abolition of slavery in the Western world, and the continued advocacy of workers and their fellow citizens, the specific claims of women’s suffrage and colonial independence were largely ignored. The exploitation of domestic workers and colonies produced spectacular private and national wealth that fueled disputes among European states.

In the twentieth century, the League of Nations emerged between two devastating World Wars that resulted largely from these conflicts. Although it did not engender a “supranational entity transcending the interests of the more powerful states, as socialist envoys…hoped…, it embodied the victorious Allied powers’ principle of collective security, in which all world states would join against any future aggressor.” Significantly, the concurrently created International Labor Organization served as an affiliated group to “enforce labor standards, in part as a way to reduce the motives for war.” (206) Additional ratified agreements ensured safer working conditions; the protection of children, women, and immigrant workers; and other liberal-socialist gestures. Yet once again, even though women won the right to vote, European colonial powers failed to live up to the principles they espoused, ignoring the claims of their colonies for independence.

Only after WWII did the current rights system come into being. The Universal Declaration and its supporting agreements represent explicit international statements of principles. Yet, as Ishay argues, the cold war presented the most significant obstacle to developing human rights fully. (228) For instance, the Soviet Union prioritized social and economic rights as well as “equivalent civic duties.” The United States and its allies on the other hand “favored political and civil rights. Central to this controversy was a face-off between proponents of central planning and advocates of programs that provided some room for the ‘invisible hand’ to operate.” (221) In this dispute, the Soviet Union, “[f]earing additional incursions into domestic politics, and given their minority status in the overall compositions of the United Nations in 1948, … insisted that the state should be left as the primary authority for securing human rights.” (221–22 ) Consequently, the parties adopted two further, co-equal agreements: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic and Social and Cultural Rights. The former “focused more specifically on the civil and political dimensions of the Universal declaration. Pressed by the Soviet Union, it excluded, for instance, the right to property.” The latter “expanded upon the few social and economic clauses stipulated in the Universal Declaration.” The important difference between the two was that the rights enumerated in the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights “would be protected immediately,” while states should recognize the provisions of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and “implement them progressively, consistent with other specific programs.” (224)

The cynical, selective use of the human rights agenda’s otherwise comprehensive emphasis on self-determination, socialism and liberal democracy stunted many of the United Nations’ efforts. Both superpowers engaged each other through proxy wars and by propping up states that shared little semblance to either liberal democracy or state socialism—the regime types each professed to be defending. The demands of developing states and former colonies for self-determination and freedom from Western interference sprang out of this context as they realized among other things that post-independence aid and military assistance came attached to conditions that rendered them little more than pawns. The situation thereby further perverted the forums necessary for protecting human rights.
In our post-Soviet era, the dominance of global capitalism seems total. Yet, there remain the seething resentments of anti-modernist religious, ethnic and racial fundamentalists who, under the same flags of self-determination raised earlier, demand the right to return to or remain in premodern modes that often deny human rights. In a different way, progressive groups also seek strategies to deal with globalization that sometimes verge on isolationism. The divisions between rich and poor countries remain a critical challenge for international labor movements. Even in developed countries, conflicts between the shrinking number of unionized and the increasing non-unionized workforce persist alongside the downward pressure on salaries. Ishay notes that although it is true, as free-marketers claim, the rising tide raises all boats, the tide seems to be rising faster for the few at the top than the many below. (263) Under these conditions, Amnesty International along with labor activists and scholars suggested in 1998 that both the human rights community and labor union movements had much to learn from each other.

From this history it should be clear that the unfinished business of human rights cannot simply be blamed on underdeveloped or rogue states whose governments and military hide behind principles of sovereignty and self determination. In 1998, for example, the United States and Israel initially found themselves oddly in agreement with the likes of Yemen, China and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in opposing the Rome Statute that engendered the International Criminal Court. The shortcomings derive instead from a central problematic in human rights. For while these rights, being based in individual dignity and autonomy, possess independent justification, their realization is nonetheless materially dependent on institutions and procedures controlled by the group or state. Recursively, state or group power in this age of democratic supremacy is predicated on the extension of the initial, individualistic principle to the autonomous group. Hence the dispute over female genital cutting involves a whirlwind of controversy surrounding issues of gender, race, class, and national or group self-determination. Is the practice a defining cultural tradition or a way of controlling female social position and presence by way of limiting full female sexual expression? Are the concerns expressed by outsiders a new form of Western imperialism under the cloak of human rights? How does the practice affect or relate to the economic and social possibilities for women and the nation as a whole? Ishay notes that “[a]s globalization erodes national distinctions, cultural rights revive them, intensifying efforts to protect national patrimonies against waves of immigrants, foreign imports, or the overall homogenization of the world into universal consumerism.” (273) This reflects the concern with Westernization in particular, and modernization in generally. Ishay discusses the call for relativism from thinkers such as Richard Rorty and Dundes Renteln as well as feminists such as Jane Flax. She notes this relativism, however, “can lead one to overlook cases where culture is used to justify oppression of one group by another. … In short, cultural rights have little merit for internationalist defenders of human rights when women and the untouchables of this world are silenced and abused in the name of an imagined tradition.” (276)

Ishay goes on to argue that important epistemological differences separate one interpretation of rights from another… liberal internationalists prefer an interpretation of rights endowing all people with the capacity to reason and shape their destinies; socialists favor a socioeconomic definition of universal rights to redress social inequity between individuals; post-structuralists, and oddly enough pragmatists, understand the importance of elevating particular cultural interests as a weapon against the manifold sources of domination, regardless of their basis of moral legitimacy; and communitarians celebrate the importance of an organic communal spirit in the face of an ever more impersonal and alienating world. (277)

These different approaches result from different questions that are asked and different problems identified in reaction to changing socioeconomic conditions in different contexts. Ishay appreciates that our world seems to be shrinking and bringing us together for good or ill. Together we must resolve these tensions while combating human rights abuses. A new global public sphere might provide the space to engage this struggle. The final chapter investigates further the emergence of the public spheres and its role in promoting human rights. It is the globalization of this civil society, then, that she finds critical. Nonetheless, we “cannot entrust the task of building such a civil society to the whims of history.” (345) The claim is that the different “special levels” that the human rights community now spans, must attempt to reforge the progressive relation between labor rights and human rights and the role the state once played in ensuring this connection. Of course, strategically, the question that remains unanswered is how different groups are to form the necessary coalitions across space and values.


d’Entrèves, Passerin Alexandre. Natural Law: An Introduction to Legal Philosophy. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1996.