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The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History

Samuel Moyn

Most accounts of the human rights movement begin with the crystallization of ideas about “the rights of man” during the Enlightenment, ideas that were ushered onto the world stage during the American and French Revolutions in the eighteenth century, pushed forward by antislavery and anticolonial movements in the nineteenth century, and made universal in the 1940s with the establishment of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this provocatively revisionist history, Moyn argues that the decisive move occurred more recently. Until the 1970s, Moyn claims, human rights were still primarily secured by sovereign states. What was new and revolutionary in that decade was the notion that rights were entitlements that existed “above and outside” the sovereign state, a concept that served as a rallying call for human rights movements across Europe, Latin America, and the United States. But what Moyn fails to fully appreciate is that the deep subversiveness of ideas about “the rights of man” had existed since the Enlightenment, poised to unsettle more traditional notions of citizens and the state.

Published by Foreign Affairs