The idea of universal human rights seems weaker now than at any time in recent memory. The United States has struggled to build democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Arab Spring has wilted, leaving Egypt in the hands of a de facto military autocracy and Syria in a state of horrific civil war. Meanwhile, the standing of the International Criminal Court continues to slip, especially among African countries. It is tempting to conclude that the movement for global human rights is crumbling.
But the question of where the human rights movement is heading also raises the question of where it came from. A number of scholars point to the period since the 1970s as the critical time when human rights took off. They describe a period characterized by three mutually reinforcing developments: powerful countries began to take human rights more seriously, powerful organizations and individuals took up the cause, much of the world came together to build international institutions to protect human rights. As these developments petered out in recent years -- so the argument goes -- the project of universal human rights has faltered.
Yet this narrative is false. In truth, the history of human rights is far longer and more contentious than is generally understood. Claims to rights have always been fraught with questions about who should be considered a rights-bearing individual in the first place. In that sense, the politics of human rights -- still at work today in places ranging from China to Egypt to Russia and Syria -- have always been more likely to generate conflict than consensus.
Three important aspects of human rights are often forgotten. The first is that human rights are a species of general individual rights: individuals claim them on the basis of their status as a particular kind of moral being not on the basis of contracts, customs, or social position. Second, human rights, like all individual rights, have practical force. Weak actors can invoke them against materially stronger