How Activists Changed Washington

America's Forgotten Human Rights Movement

A human rights protester Washington, D.C., 2011.
A human rights protester in Washington, D.C., 2011. (Jonathan Ernst / Courtesy Reuters)

Today, the concept of universal human rights is a regular feature of U.S. political discourse. Americans frequently interpret overseas developments -- from religious discrimination and violence in Baghdad to the exploitation of factory workers in Bangladesh, kidnappings in Honduras, and immigration restrictions in Europe -- in relation to human rights (and, almost inevitably, in terms of “violations”), and look to U.S. foreign policy to protect those rights abroad. 

Yet the ubiquity of such rhetoric today obscures the relatively recent origins of the U.S. human rights movement. It wasn’t until the late 1960s and the 1970s that grassroots organizers, lobbyists, and members of Congress embraced human rights in reaction to the excesses of U.S. Cold War policies, namely Washington’s close ties to authoritarian anticommunist governments. Moreover, it is easy to forget the intense opposition that such advocates initially faced; after all, they essentially set out to challenge the core assumptions that had undergirded U.S. foreign policy for decades. The progress they achieved, in other words, was by no means inevitable, but rather the result of a hard-fought struggle to raise awareness, build political coalitions, and pass legislation.


In the aftermath of World War II, the United States trumpeted human rights as an essential part of the postwar order. Washington was a driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. But such values quickly took a back seat to the exigencies of a growing U.S.-Soviet rivalry. Over time, U.S. policymakers came to see pro-Western leaders -- no matter their human rights record -- as the most dependable bulwark against communism. And within just a few years, even the human rights declaration had become a mere tool of U.S. and Soviet propaganda.

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