Ishay, M. (2004). The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era. Berkley:

By Oskari Mantere.

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a proliferation of interest in the history of human rights. Micheline Ishay’s The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to Globalization Era is one example of an archetypal work that arose in the wake of this zeitgeist of the early 2000s. As the subtitle of the book suggests, Ishay traces the origin of human rights to ancient times wherefrom she chronicles its advancement into the twenty-first century.

Photo by Oskari Mantere.

In her book, Ishay describes the development of human rights as a result of a “cumulative historical process”. Notably, this “process” is not depicted as a straightforward march of progress. Rather, she details how every step forward towards the advancement of human rights is followed by a regressive step backward. For example, the noble rights of man that flourished during the French Revolution were followed by the Thermidorian Reaction; the humanitarian aspirations of Bolshevism and the League of Nations were curbed by the rise of Fascist and Stalinist totalitarianism; and the final advancement of human rights following the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was paralyzed by the Cold War. Despite these lapses, Ishay argues that there has been genuine human rights progress.

The History of Human Rights contains many insightful notions on the history of humanism; for example, the overview of ancient legal traditions such as Hammurabi’s Code and Confucianism (27-35) and the analysis on the Enlightenment debates on torture and right to life are succinct and sharp (84-91). On top of this, Ishay pays attention to the fact that the modern conception of human rights is not equivalent to the ancient conception of rights (19n6). Instead, this modern conception of human rights is predominantly Western (7) and is “best understood as an extension of Enlightenment arguments” (64-65). Furthermore, a substantial portion of the book is dedicated to examining who was excluded from rights and how.

Unfortunately, Ishay has infused her argument with a package logic. Instead of allowing there to be a plurality of moral languages with their own claims, Ishay lumps all traditions that fall under the broad umbrella of humanism together as precursors of human rights. In this framework, Hobbes is “a human rights advocate” (85), and Marx plays the role of “advancing the new human rights agenda” in the minds of the workers (160).

Chapter five illustrates how both the zeitgeist of the early 2000s and package logic hinders The History of Human Rights. The shadows of 9/11 and the Battle of Seattle are noticeably present in this section: the War on Terror and globalisation and its discontent provide two major issues that Ishay discusses. Although these discussions are important and are arguably amongst the most salient issues of today, they fail to tell us about the human rights struggles of the twentieth century; rather they tell us about the anxieties of the early 2000s. Worst stumbles in the chapter are certainly its omissions. There is virtually no discussion on the role of conservatives and Christians in the development of human rights in the 1940s; Amnesty International is not studied at all, and the whole 1970s human rights revolution is seen as a continuation of 1968.

Whereas the first five chapters focus on the historical narrative of human rights development from ancient times to the age of globalisation, the last chapter analyses the structural level changes in state, civil society, and the private sphere. Here, Ishay provides a brief overview of how the changing role of civil society – from its absence in medieval times to its internationalisation and subsequent assault during the global age – has contributed to the human rights struggles.

The History of Human Rights suffers heavily on package logic. Ishay does not allow herself to tell the story of the plural history of morals and fails to appreciate the contingency in the development of human rights. While The History of Human Rights remains a lacklustre read for those engaged with the history of rights, it can still provide a good introductory work for first-year undergraduates interested in the intellectual history of humanism or an evening read for a layman.

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