The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard University Press 2010) takes the reader on a sweeping journey through the history of international law...

The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard University Press 2010) takes the reader on a sweeping journey through the history of international law from the ancient world to the present in search for an answer to the question: where did human rights come from? The book’s author, Columbia University intellectual historian Samuel Moyn examines, in turn, Enlightenment humanism, socialist internationalism, horror at twentieth-century genocide, anti-colonialism, and the civil rights movement. But he concludes that these were not sufficient individually or collectively to account for the emergence this key term of our contemporary political vocabulary. Human rights has, as Moyn tells us in this interview, a more recent and surprising vintage.

I have never read a book that devoted so much space to where something wasn’t and to why it wasn’t there. Yet in Moyn’s explanation of the non-existence of human rights until its breakthrough moment in the 1970s, we learn a great deal not only about the importance of the nation-state to the conception of individual rights, but about the nature of historical change.

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