Human Rights, A History

The history of human rights in modernity is characterised by the existence of two momentous and long-standing streams: One that developed in Europe out of the struggle against absolutism and totalitarianism, and another that emerged in the context of the history of modern imperialism and out of the resistance to colonial violence and domination. While much is written about the history of the first, the second is less well known.


This latter stream sprang out of the advance of, and the struggle against, colonialism. Its history starts with the conquest of ‘America’ and the colonization of the world at large. It continues with the fight against slavery, and in the wars for independence of the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as in the struggles for decolonisation in Africa, Asia, Oceania, the Caribbean and the Middle East in the 20th century. It advances today in the struggles of social movements and indigenous peoples that in the Third World, or in the Global South, resist neoliberal globalisation and neocolonialism mobilised by states, empires, transnational corporations and international financial institutions.


This tradition is incarnated in legal texts such as the 18th and 19th century declarations and constitutions of independence in the Americas, including the constitutions of the newly liberated Latin American states, from Mexico in the north to Argentina and Chile in the south, passing through Haiti and Colombia. It is also expressed in 20th century international human rights principles and treaties such as the right to self-determination, rights of peoples, the right to development, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Declaration on Decolonisation, the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights, the ILO Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, among others.


The corpus of human rights that came out of the history and geography of colonialism – which not only created the anti-colonial tradition, but also contributed to develop the liberal, democratic and socialist lineages of rights – has been theoretically advanced by a long roll of intellectuals and leaders like Bartolomé de las Casas, Francisco Suárez, Guamán Poma, Antonio de Viera, Ottobah Cugoano, Toussaint Louverture, Sojourner Truth, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Sylvia Winter, Rigoberta Menchú, Domitila Chungara, Upendra Baxi, Enrique Dussel,  Boaventura de Sousa Santos and Walter Mignolo, among others.


Human rights permeates multiples spheres of life in the modern/colonial times, and sits across the fields of constitutional and international law, politics and international relations, as well as local, national, regional and global scenarios. Throughout the centuries and under the names of natural rights, rights of man, constitutional or fundamental rights, and human rights, the two large European and anti-colonial streams of rights have interacted, contradicted and enriched each other since the beginning of modernity, and continue to do it today. However, ingrained in the modern geopolitics of the production of knowledge, the first tradition has been hegemonic, dominating the intellectual debate while relegating the anti-colonial stream to the margins or silence.


Future developments of human rights theory, and the need for strengthening their capacity to resist the violence of states and imperialism in the times of globalisation resides, among other possibilities, in enacting or continuing a critical dialogue between the two traditions. In addition, as suggested by Santos, there is also the possibility of reimagining and making human rights more legitimate in local contexts by cultivating an intercultural dialogue between contemporary civilisations and their multiple traditions of the human, including Western, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and indigenous and tribal cultures all over the world.


The history of human rights in modernity can be told or constructed through a dialogical way of thinking, while at the same time being aware of the contradictory ways in which they have been deployed in history. In other words, the history of human rights can also be narrated in an agonistic fashion, as it has been proposed by Paul Gilroy. The anti-colonial drive of the discourse of human rights, which comes from their utopian and emancipatory core, has been accompanied by a long-standing deployment of rights for domination and colonisation. This was the case already in the 16th and 17th centuries, when natural rights were appropriated to justify plunder, war of conquest, torture and genocide, as in the cases of Francisco de Vitoria, Juan de Sepulveda and Hugo Grotius. In a similar way, George W. Bush and Tony Blair, more recently, appealed to human rights to justify neo-colonial invasions, mass casualties and the 21st century War on Terror.



Essential Reading:

Barreto, Jose-Manuel, Imperialism and Decolonisation as Scenarios of Human Rights History, 2013.

Baxi, Upendra, The Future of Human Rights, 2002, 2012.

Dussel, Enrique, Alterity and modernity. Las Casas, Vitoria and Suarez, 1514 – 1617, 2007, 2013.

Gilroy, Paul, Darker than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture, 2011.

Mignolo, Walter, Who Speaks for the “Human” in Human Rights?, 2009, 2013.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa, Toward a Multicultural Conception of Human Rights, 2002.


Further Reading:

Baldi, Cesar Augusto, Direitos Humanos na Sociedade Cosmopolita , 2004.

Barreto, Jose-Manuel, Human Rights from a Third World Perspective. Critique, History and International Law, 2013.

Bhambra, Gurminder, and Shilliam, Robbie, Silencing Human Rights: Critical Engagements with a Contested Project, 2008.

Santos, Andre, Lucas, Doglas & Bragato, Fernanda, Pos-Colonialismo, Pensamento Descolonial e Direitos Humanos na America Latina, 2015.



In which sense it could be said that the hegemonic history and theory of human rights is Eurocentric?

What are the key contributions of the European tradition to the theory of human rights?

What is the core of the anti-colonial tradition of human rights?

Which has been, or can be, the role of critical and intercultural dialogues in the history and the future of human rights?

Why is that human rights have been historically a discourse for both liberation and colonisation?



Submitted by Jose-Manuel Barreto

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