History of Human Rights


Historians were slow to come to human rights. Only in the last decade has human rights history emerged as an object of sustained study. In this critical moment of creation, the Pozen Center has worked to foster the development of what might be termed “Chicago school” of human rights history.

Participating Faculty

Faculty in the University of Chicago’s Departments of History and Political Science for whom human rights history is a central part of their work include Tara Zahra, Jane Dailey, Amy Dru Stanley, James Sparrow, Kathleen Belew, Jennifer Pitts, Chiara Cordelli, Adom Getachew, and Mark Philip Bradley. With the support of the Pozen Center, they are working with a group of graduate students who are writing what will be the second generation of the new human rights history.


The Pozen Center will sponsor a series of activities in conjunction with the publication of Faculty Director Mark Philip Bradley’s book The World Reimagined: Americans and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and Faculty Board Chair Tara Zahra’s book The Great Departure (W.W. Norton and Company, 2016).

Select Past Activities

Human Rights and Empire Graduate Student Conference
May 19-20, 2016

This conference was organized by and for doctoral students working with a range of theoretical and historical approaches to address the politics of human rights in relation to race and empire. The keynote lecture, “Colonialism and the Future of Human Rights” was given by Antony Anghie, Samuel D. Thurman Professor of Law, College Of Law, University of Utah. Poster | Program | Photos

Conference: Does Human Rights Have a History? 
April 10-11, 2015

This conference drew together leading historians of human rights working across time and space to address the question of whether human rights has a history. In doing so it honored the contributions of Michael Geyer, Samuel N. Harper Professor of German and European History and the College and a founder of the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago, to the field of human rights history and to the development of interdisciplinary studies of human rights thought and practice at the University of Chicago. Conference organizers included Mark Philip Bradley, Jane Dailey, Emily Osborn, Amy Dru Stanley, and Tara Zahra. Poster | Program | Photos

Related Courses

Human Rights: History and Theory | HMRT 20200 (offered some years)

This course is concerned with the theory and the historical evolution of the modern human rights regime. It discusses the emergence of a modern “human rights” culture as a product of the formation and expansion of the system of nation-states and the concurrent rise of value-driven social mobilizations. It proceeds to discuss human rights in two prevailing modalities. First, it explores rights as protection of the body and personhood and the modern, Western notion of individualism. Second, it inquires into rights as they affect groups (e.g., ethnicities and, potentially, transnational corporations) or states.