Human Rights: Past, Present, and Future

January 21-23, 2016

In the late eighteenth century, in a political atmosphere riven by revolution, some of the earliest declarations of rights appeared. Two of these—the French “Declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen,” and the American “Bill of Rights”—derived from Enlightenment-era concepts of liberty, citizenship, and natural rights. Despite the late eighteenth century’s interest in human rights, it would take until the end of World War II for an international body—in this case, the United Nations—to adopt a “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” And in 2006, the president of the American Historical Association declared, “We are all historians of human rights.” Human rights clearly do have a history. However, its contours are still undergoing debate and revision.

The present-day plight of refugees as they flee dangerous countries around the world brings into stark relief the question of human rights, and the challenges we face in coming to terms with them, and in understanding their trajectory and context. National boundaries and conditions of citizenship have destabilized to a degree probably unanticipated by the drafters of the American constitution and the French declaration of rights. Without understanding the origins of theories that led to a universal declaration of rights, and how these have developed in concert with closely-related questions of social and economic rights, how can we know whether human rights have a future of their own?

And yet, despite the deep interconnections between our conceptualizations of human rights, and social and economic rights, human rights have not been an object of inquiry until the recent past. As the organizers of a recent (2015) UChicago-sponsored conference noted, before 1998, mentions of the UN’s “Universal Declaration” were entirely absent from articles published in the American Historical Review. In recent decades, scholars of human rights have sought to bring awareness to the topic. And now, the field is faced with the challenge of critically engaging with its own development, asking questions like:  How did human rights come to be conceptualized as a field, considering that its central questions have been addressed through a variety of other avenues, e.g. in social and economic examinations of abolition movements or colonialism? What analytical—or real world—advantages result from rethinking these questions as issues of human rights? As the field of human rights study continues to evolve in the twenty-first century, this seminar will review its past, reflect on present dilemmas, and anticipate problems that loom on the horizon.

This seminar will examine topics such as the conceptual origins of human rights; how human rights have been articulated (and actualized) in law; the links between human rights and humanitarianism; the expansion of human rights to groups that include minorities and also new or non-citizens; issues of health and human rights; and even critiques of differing notions of human rights as well as the imbrication of each of these developing ideas with the historical events and problems linked to them. Our speakers represent a wide range of methodological approaches from across the social sciences and humanities.

Scheduled to speak are Jane Dailey (Department of History, the Law School, Pozen Family Center for Human Rights); Susan Gzesh (Pozen Family Center for Human Rights); John Kelly (Department of Anthropology); Eric Slauter (Department of English, Karla Scherer Center for the Study of American Culture); Amy Stanley (Department of History, Pozen Family Center for Human Rights); and Sonali Thakkar (Department of English, Pozen Family Center for Human Rights).