Blog posted under History

This Human Rights Blog is managed by University of Chicago graduate students who are exploring human rights thought and practice from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Readers can sort by topic or start here to read more about the blog.

History and State of the field

Writing the History of Human Rights: An Introduction

Historians discovered human rights in the late 1990s. Since then, lively conversations developed across almost every imaginable historical subfield, from medieval to modern. Much of the human rights historiography has been focused on the question of origins. Many historians have tried to locate the starting point of contemporary human rights ideas and practice, and they have suggested everything from as early as the twelfth century (and sometimes even earlier) to as late as the 1970s. Such enormous diversity of opinion can only be found in a field with widely divergent ideas about what in fact counts as “human rights.” The origins question is by no means settled and interesting debates on this issue continue. But in the last several years, many historians have been feeling fatigue set in on the origins debates. There is no reason that origins should be the organizing frame for the whole literature, and there is no shortage of alternative approaches available for historians of human rights to draw upon. This post is one way to make sense of (some of) what happened in the historiography over the last twenty years. I wrote it originally as a thought exercise for myself—there are of course other ways to think about the literature, and there’s a lot that I’ve left out of this (especially the many excellent and sophisticated histories written in the last few years). But it might also provide a useful introduction for non-specialists who would like to get a quick overview of how historians have written the history.

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History and Humanitarianism

Human Rights in the Age of Trump - Guest post from Faculty Director Mark Philip Bradey

“Don’t tell me it doesn’t work—torture works,” then presidential candidate Donald Trump said at a February 2016 campaign event in Bluffton, South Carolina. “Okay, folks, torture—you know, half these guys [say]: ‘Torture doesn’t work.’ Believe me, it works, okay?” At the time, I was finishing my recent book on Americans and human rights in the 20th century, and Trump’s repeated defense of torture, like so many of his pronouncements, struck me as relics of the past. Like many, I did not see the Trump presidency coming. Now less than one week into his presidency we already have a draft executive order that would reopen the “black site” prisons where terrorist suspects were detained and tortured during the George W. Bush Administration. And on Friday, Trump issued an executive order that suspended entry of all refugees into the United States for 120 days, barred Syrian refugees indefinitely, and prohibited entry into the United States for 90 days for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries. Academics against Immigration Executive Order has rightly characterized the ban as “unethical and discriminatory treatment of law-abiding, hard-working, and well-integrated immigrants” that “fundamentally contravenes the founding principles of the United States.” The Trump presidency is unlikely to be remembered for its vigorous championing of human rights but it is already producing powerful forms of resistance that may put human rights center stage in the United States again. Why, again?

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