Is the Age of Human Rights Over?

Authored by: Makau Mutua

The Routledge Companion to Literature and Human Rights

Print publication date:  August  2015
Online publication date:  July  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415736411
eBook ISBN: 9781315778372
Adobe ISBN: 9781317696285


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The last half of the twentieth century – after World War II – was undoubtedly the golden era of human rights. No less an authority than Louis Henkin, one of the key intellectual fathers of the modern human rights movement, dubbed the period the “Age of Rights.” He wrote that “[h]uman rights is the idea of our time, the only political moral idea that has received universal acceptance” (Henkin 1990: xvii). Philip Alston, a leading contemporary scholar of human rights, has argued that naming a claim a “human right elevates it above the rank and file of competing societal goals” and bestows upon it an “aura of timelessness, absoluteness and universal validity” (Alston 1988: 3). These are strong claims. One critique of them is that they are part of an echo chamber. They are grandiose statements made by insiders – those with an interest in depicting human rights as a zenith of human civilization. The assertions deserve further scrutiny.

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