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What Future for Human Rights?

  • James W. Nickel

Like people born shortly after World War II, the international human rights movement recently had its sixty-fifth birthday. This could mean that retirement is at hand and that death will come in a few decades. After all, the formulations of human rights that activists, lawyers, and politicians use today mostly derive from the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the world in 1948 was very different from our world today: the cold war was about to break out, communism was a strong and optimistic political force in an expansionist phase, and Western Europe was still recovering from the war. The struggle against entrenched racism and sexism had only just begun, decolonization was in its early stages, and Asia was still poor (Japan was under military reconstruction, and Mao's heavy-handed revolution in China was still in the future). Labor unions were strong in the industrialized world, and the movement of women into work outside the home and farm was in its early stages. Farming was less technological and usually on a smaller scale, the environmental movement had not yet flowered, and human-caused climate change was present but unrecognized. Personal computers and social networking were decades away, and Earth's human population was well under three billion.

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1 Views that take the ethical dimension of human rights as central are often called “moral” or “orthodox” conceptions of human rights.

2 Stephen Hopgood, “Human Rights: Past their sell-by date,” Eurozine, July 17, 2013,

3 Buchanan, Allen, The Heart of Human Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

4 Rawls, John, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999). Views that define human rights in terms of their role in international relations are often called “political conceptions.”

5 Moyn, Samuel, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), pp. 120–75.

6 For an optimistic view of developments in 2013, see Kenneth Roth's Foreign Policy essay, “Silver Lining: The Year 2013 in Human Rights,” December 30, 2013,

7 This list is from Nickel, James, Making Sense of Human Rights, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), p. 11.

8 Council on Foreign Relations, Public Opinion on Global Issues,

9 Moyn, The Last Utopia, pp. 143, 212–13.

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Ethics & International Affairs
  • ISSN: 0892-6794
  • EISSN: 1747-7093
  • URL: /core/journals/ethics-and-international-affairs
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