The complex origins, development, and meanings of human rights

The complex origins, development, and meanings of human rights

By Eric D. Weitz

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In 2015, a young girl and her father crossed into the United States from the border with Mexico. Astrid and Arturo, K’iche’ Indians from Guatemala, were fleeing the systematic discrimination and violence their people have suffered for decades. US officials detained Astrid and Arturo for only one day. They had applied for political asylum and were allowed to move on. They began to build a life in Pennsylvania as they awaited the decision on their asylum status. Three years later, in 2018, US immigration authorities raided their home in the middle of the night and arrested them. Human rights lawyers argued that Astrid and Arturo were unjustly detained. Amnesty International launched a campaign to free them. The authorities were deluged with nearly two thousand phone calls and tens of thousands of petitions demanding their release. The calls and petitions arrived from nearly every continent on the globe. Officials relented, and after a month set father and daughter free. For now. Their status as asylum seekers has, as of autumn 2018, still not been finally decided.1 

One story from one family among the more than 68.5 million migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in the world today.2 Yet the experiences of Astrid and Arturo speak to the three questions that animate this book: Who has access to rights? What do we mean by human rights? And how do we obtain rights? 

Human rights are never as simple as we might think from reading, say, the preamble and thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). That is precisely the point of A World Divided. I aim not just to celebrate human rights (although I do most definitely support them), but to explore their complex origins, development, and meanings since the eighteenth century. I do so by examining the histories of various nation-states and one federation of nationalities (the Soviet Union) and the human rights they proclaimed. I have chosen these particular cases, culled from around the globe over the past two and one-half centuries, because they encompass the variety of modern political and economic systems, from republic to empire, slavery to socialism, colonialism to communism. 

Human rights offer people around the world the prospects of expansive, liberty-endowed, self-determining lives, despite the violations, deprivations, and atrocities we still witness on virtually every continent. Even where they exist only as promises and hopes, human rights stand as a triumph of the human spirit and intellect. Where implemented, they protect us from the arbitrary power of the state. They assure us that policemen cannot enter our homes unless granted a warrant, and no government agency can arbitrarily seize the property we own. Every time individuals around the globe go to a polling place to pull a lever or scratch an X to choose the representatives of their choice, wherever people raise their voices in meetings and rallies or in letters to their local newspaper, they are exercising rights of free speech that make them participants of the worlds they inhabit, whether it be their local village or town or country. Whenever people demand clean water or adequate healthcare, they are expressing their social rights. Through all these activities, they are no longer mere objects who are ordered about or moved around at someone’s whim, nor subjects who, if fate treats them well, receive benefits from those above them. Rights give people power in the best sense of the term—the ability to shape their own lives and the societies in which they live. Rights enhance our capacity to be more fully human. 

In our divided world of 193 sovereign nation-states, we have rights first and foremost as national citizens. But who, in fact, constitutes the nation and by what criteria? Were Arturo and Astrid, as Indians, national citizens and therefore able to exercise rights in Guatemala? Who has the “right to have rights”?—as Hannah Arendt, and the German Enlightenment philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte before her, asked.3 Access to rights in the nation-state is the first major theme of this book. From Greek rebels in the early nineteenth century to anticolonial Africans in the twentieth, all had to face the questions: Who belongs to the nation? Who qualifies to be a rights-bearing citizen, and what kinds of rights may he or she possess? What happens to those who live within the territory of the new nation-state but are somehow different from the dominant group, whether by virtue of skin color, religion, language, or any other trait? This quandary remains with us today, as Arturo and Astrid know all too well. 

A World Divided affirms the powerful and creative history of human rights from the late eighteenth century to the present. It also presents a critique of the limitations of rights, so long as they are based in the nation-state and national or racial citizenship.4 In fact, the book takes the problem one step further: the great paradox of the history presented here is that nation-states create rights for some at the same time that they exclude others, at times quite brutally. The state is our protector; it is also our greatest threat.5 This dilemma, that the state, at its best, enforces human rights, but at the same time limits the circle of those who can possess rights, is our history as well as our present and future. As far as anyone can imagine, we will continue to inhabit a world of 193 sovereign independent states (give or take one, two, or three). 

Only since 1945 has the emergence of international human rights offered a model of universal rights beyond the nation-state. The UDHR, passed by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on 10 December 1948, proclaims that rights inhere in everyone regardless of national citizenship. Scores of international treaties confirm the point that even the stateless possess human rights and therefore need to be protected by states and the international community.6 Asylum seekers, like Arturo and Astrid, are especially protected, and they at least were released from detention after one month. Every step that moves the protection of human rights to the international level, however partial and limited, constitutes, I argue, a major advance, the best-laid path out of the quandaries and limitations of human rights based exclusively in national citizenship.7 

Nonetheless, in the vast majority of cases we are still dependent on the nation-state to establish and enforce human rights, or are compelled to fight the nation-state as the supreme violator of rights. Activists around the globe appeal to international human rights standards. But their first station stop is their own state, which they call upon to ensure free speech, provide clean water, and rein in paramilitaries who wreak havoc on populations.8 

One truth about human rights is incontrovertible (and it may be the only truth): they are dynamic. Their meaning has evolved over the past two and one-half centuries, and that is the second theme pursued in this book. Once reserved for some people—propertied men, white Europeans, loyal Soviets—they were quickly demanded by those who had been excluded. Activists turned the rhetoric and law of rights against those who reigned, and demanded a free and open, more inclusive society. We shall see this phenomenon at work time and again, in Brazil, the Soviet Union, South Korea, and Rwanda and Burundi, and in other histories explored in each of the chapters. We shall also see it at work internationally, notably in the movement for women’s rights after 1945. 

As the charmed circle of rights-bearing citizens expanded, so did the meaning of those rights. In the nineteenth century, new states were primarily liberal in character. They proclaimed political rights, like the right to free speech and assembly and protection from unwarranted search and seizure, but provided little to nothing in the way of social rights.9 Yet already by the mid-nineteenth century, socialists, feminists, and some liberals raised the objection that rights conceived solely in political terms ignored the great needs and desires of the vast majority of the population.10 

Today, most scholars and activists insist that the political rights derived from the great revolutions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries must be complemented by social and economic rights. The UN said as much in 1966 by passing the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the United States, though a signatory, has never ratified the treaty). The Guatemalan Constitution, like so many others around the globe, conforms to this understanding.11 Its section on “Human Rights,” primarily political in orientation, is immediately followed by one on “Social Rights.” Had the state come anywhere close to following its own prescriptions, Arturo and Astrid would have been able to speak out freely and express their cultural identity, and would have had access to healthcare and education—the full complement of human rights as understood today. 

This essay is an excerpt from A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States by Eric D. Weitz.

About the Author

Eric D. Weitz (1953–2021) was Distinguished Professor of History at City College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He was also the author of Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, which was named a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice; A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation; and Creating German Communism, 1890–1990: From Popular Protests to Socialist State (all Princeton).


1. I take this story from the Amnesty International website: “I Welcome: Protecting the Rights of Refugees and Asylum-Seekers,” n.d., accessed 13 August 2018,, and “Help Release 15-Year-Old Astrid and Her Father,” n.d., accessed 13 August 2018, 

2. Figure from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, “Figures at a Glance,” n.d., accessed 13 August 2018, 

3. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951; Cleveland: Meridian, 1958), 296. Arendt’s formulation, “the right to have rights,” is uncannily close to Fichte’s: “The one true right that belongs to the human being as such [is]: the right to be able to acquire rights.” See Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Foundations of Natural Right, according to the Principles of the Wissenschaftslehre, ed. Frederick Neuhouser, trans. Michael Baur (1796; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 333. Arendt makes no reference to Fichte’s formulation, nor do any of the major Arendt scholars. 

The German original: “Dies allein is das eigentliche Menschenrecht, das den [dem, editor] Menschen, als Menschen, zukommt; die Möglichkeit sich Rechte zu erwerben.” Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Grundlage des Naturrechts nach Principien der Wissenschaftslehre (1796), in J. G. Fichte: Gesamtausgabe der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, ed. Reinhard Lauth and Hans Gliwitzky, pt. 1, vol. 4, Werke 1797–1798 (Stuttgart: Friedrich Frommann Verlag, 1970), 163. 

4. I do not, however, share the withering criticisms of some recent authors, who tell us that human rights are on the wane; have altogether failed; are utopian in character and therefore undermine the real and necessary world of politics, which has to be about limited goals; divert attention from more critical social issues, like inequality; or are Western-based and therefore necessarily imperialist in character. See, for example, Samuel Moyn, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018), and The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010); Eric A. Posner, The Twilight of Human Rights Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); and Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013). For a very effective challenge to such critiques, see Kathryn Sikkink, Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), and Beth A. Simmons, Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law in Domestic Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). See also the pioneering work of Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: Norton, 2007). On the French debates, see Justine Lacroix and Jean-Yves Pranchère, Le procès des droits de l’homme: Généalogie du scepticisme démocratique (Paris: Seuil, 2016), which is highly critical of the francophone opponents of human rights. Lacroix and Pranchère’s position is very similar to my own. 

5. See Christian Reus-Smit, Individual Rights and the Making of the International System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 210–11, who writes similarly. For two significant works on related themes, though neither addresses directly human rights, see Philipp Ther, The Dark Side of Nation-States: Ethnic Cleansing in Modern Europe, trans. Charlotte Kreutzmüller (2011; New York: Berghahn, 2014), and Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). 

6. See David Weissbrodt, The Human Rights of Non-Citizens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). 

7. Amid a huge literature on citizenship and rights, I have found especially compelling Ayten Gündoğdu, Rightlessness in an Age of Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); Margaret R. Somers, Genealogies of Citizenship: Markets, Statelessness, and the Right to Have Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); and Seyla Benhabib, The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). All three authors work in conversation with Hannah Arendt. On the long and complex history of citizenship, see Frederick Cooper, Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference: Historical Perspectives (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018). Cooper emphasizes the diverse meanings of citizenship, in the present as well as historically. For one of the classic statements, see T. H. Marshall, “Citizenship and Social Class” (1950), in Class, Citizenship, and Social Development: Essays by T. H. Marshall, introduction by Seymour Martin Lipset (Garden City: Doubleday, 1964), 65–122. 

8. See Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus, “Introduction: Embracing Paradox: Human Rights in the Global Age,” in The Human Rights Paradox: Universality and its Discontents, ed. Stern and Straus (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), 3–28. Also on the complexity of human rights, see Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, “Introduction: Genealogies of Human Rights,” in Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, ed. Hoffmann (2010; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 1–26. 

9. Isaiah Berlin’s famed distinction between negative and positive liberty applies here. See “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 118–72. 

10. On the varieties of liberal thought, see Helena Rosenblatt, The Lost History of Liberalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018). For arguments about the socialist contribution to a broadened conception of human rights, see Lacroix and Pranchère, Procès des droits de l’homme, and Gregory Claeys, “Socialism and the Language of Human Rights: The Origins and Implications of Economic Rights,” in Revisiting the Origins of Human Rights, ed. Pamela Slotte and Miia Halme-Tuomisaari (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 206–36. See also Hunt, Inventing Human Rights

11. For the text of the constitution, see “Guatemala’s Constitution of 1985 with Amendments through 1993,” Constitute Project, 17 January 2018,