In 2006 the president of the American Historical Association proclaimed, “We are all historians of human rights.” Exaggerated or not, this remark testifies to the fact that human rights have recently achieved new prominence as a focus of historical inquiry. Yet the boundaries and contents of this field remain remarkably ambiguous. Is it a political movement? A subset of international law? Or a philosophical discourse? To answer these questions, this course will survey the recent historiography of human rights with an equal focus on issues of intellectual genealogy and historical methodology. Readings will likely include such recent works as Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Marco Duranti’s The Conservative Human Rights Revolution, Barbara Keys’s Reclaiming American Virtue. The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s, Sarah Snyder’s Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network, Amalia Ribi Forclaz’s Humanitarian Imperialism. The Politics of Anti-Slavery Activism, 1880-1940, and Roland Burke’s Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights, as well as key primary sources in this field.
We will special attention to topics such as the debates on the ties between modern ideas of human rights and international law, political revolution, and religious internationalism; the intertwined genealogies of human rights and humanitarianism; the rise of the human rights biography; and the place of the non-governmental organization in the history of human rights.
Two special features attend this course. First, the course will focus much of its work around a major international multidisciplinary conference to be held at the University of Virginia in the spring semester on the future of human rights scholarship. Second, the course is structured as a hybrid 4000-level and 5000-level seminar, with an enrollment divided between advanced history department majors and graduate students. Writing requirements will vary depending on the student’s level, but both will include the preparation of a major seminar paper.