Did Decolonization Foster Human Rights? A Review of Steven Jensen

H-Soz-u-Kult has just posted a review (in German) of Steven Jensen‘s new book, The Making of International Human Rights: The 1960s, Decolonization, and the Reconstruction of Global Values by Annette Weinke of the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena. Jensen’s book seeks to intervene in debates about the origins of modern human rights by placing them neither in the 1940s, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, nor in the 1970s, when Samuel Moyn’s influential Last Utopia asserted they took off, but in the 1960s, with the onset of decolonization. As such, he attributes agency for human rights’ creation to newly independent states and their leaders.

Weinke finds Jensen’s attempts to resurrect the contributions of postcolonial actors welcome, but his thesis overstated. Its primary shortcoming, she notes, is Jensen’s willingness to accept these actors’ attempts at the creation of human rights norms, rather than their actual fulfillment, as evidence for those norms’ acceptance and power; his “legalistic” frame, she writes, leads Jensen to miss the “ever-widening gaps between claims and reality.” Jensen also misses the intention behind postcolonial actors’ adoption of human rights, she writes; rather than upholding a truly universal standard, Weinke continues, their contributions also imposed “new hierarchies” onto human rights, effectively singling out Israel. And in drawing stark dichotomies between human rights-friendly states and their opponents, she observes, Jensen is forced to acknowledge that the United States and Western Europe played a larger role in the adoption of human rights norms than his overarching thesis might suggest.

In all, Weinke’s review appears to vindicate Moyn’s approach – and, perhaps, his periodization with it – suggesting that, until political movements began advocating for the actual enforcement of human rights norms, they were more symbolic than effective. Like the framers of the Universal Declaration, postcolonial actors may have helped create some of the texts and norms later movements advocated fulfilling – a point on which Jensen appears to have made his most important contribution – but those actors did not necessarily succeed, in the 1960s or by themselves, in molding those instruments fully into tools for practice.

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