Searching for Human Rights

In the 21st century, human rights have become commonplace and widely accepted. In conversations surrounding the news of the world, human rights may be commonly cited as matters of great concern. Of course, this was not necessarily always the case. We have only reached this point where human rights occupy this space in everyday vernacular after centuries of gradual process. Often, the history of human rights is viewed as a series of significant landmarks, moments in which wide-sweeping laws or polices were enacted to push forward the establishment and protection of human rights. Most famously, perhaps, the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights[i] put into writing an idealistic list of rights that ought to be protected for all humans.

But even before the ratification of the UDHR, other official documents landmarked important milestones in the establishment of human rights. The 1776 United States Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of Rights of the Man and of the Citizen of 1789 in France, as well as countless of other rights written into nations’ Constitutions represent significant steps in the establishment and protection of human rights. Mark Phillip Bradley might describe these major moments of policy, law, and national action as the “ticks” and “tocks” of history. Bradley describes the tick-tock, or major milestones, of human rights history, but also acknowledges the importance of the interval between “tick” and “tock” as well.[ii] It is under the logic of this space in between the “ticks” and “tocks” that the development of human rights actually may unfold. Human rights do not exist in the milestone laws and declarations. Human rights can only truly exist in the minds and experiences of individual people, and their belief that such rights must exist and be protected. However, the mere fact that we continue to debate the existence of human right, and feel the need to declare their existence, highlights just how much work remains to be done in this area. Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov described this problem when he stated “Human rights must be defended everywhere to exist anywhere.”[iii]

If human rights do not exist in the landmark laws and declarations, and have limited universality and acceptance in the beliefs of individuals, we reach a somewhat chilling conclusion: Human rights do not exist. And it is entirely possible that they never will exist, at least not fully. In somewhat of a paradoxical fashion, human rights will not fully exist until we reach a point that human rights no longer need to be debated–that is, once they truly are universally accepted and protected. Despite this pessimistic outlook on human rights, there is still some hope; even if truly universal human rights may never be achieved, cultural products such as books, television, and film, can implant and foster the idea of human rights in the minds of individuals, and perhaps slowly push the “ticks” and “tocks” of history gradually toward greater progress.

Though they may not fully exist yet, there was even a time when conversations surrounding human rights were unable to even take place. Lynn Hunt argues that the discourse of human rights was only made possible through the gradual development of human empathy. In Europe, empathy was made possible through the publication and widespread readership of epistolary novels during the late 1700s.[iv] Readers of nearly any background were presented with the stories of working class individuals, and began to empathize with other people based on their shared quality of humanness. For Hunt, these epistolary novels laid the groundwork that made it possible for formal declarations of human rights to be established in the eighteenth century, specifically the US Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Although these documents formally enumerate certain human rights, they were only made possible through the development of empathy and the initial creation of those rights and ideals within the minds of individuals. The decades of human rights history that followed these declarations adhered to the same general format–although the larger “ticks” and “tocks” of formal laws and declarations are looked upon as major milestones of human rights, those rights are actually situated within the minds and sentiments of individual people. Without media and cultural products to foster those sentiments, any progress in the field of human rights would not be possible.

This same process continues even through the twentieth century and to our contemporary understanding of human rights. Within the 1940s, human rights re-entered the everyday vernacular of the United States. For the first time in history, Americans were commonly thinking about the issue of human rights, and how to promote those throughout the world. Through the work of photographers like Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White, which was delivered directly into American homes via increasingly popular magazine subscriptions, human experiences from across the world had become easily accessible.[v] The two made photographs of human suffering, whether it be within the context of the Great Depression or the Soviet   This new level of reportage transformed human rights from an idealized concept into something that the average layperson could connect with, and “invited viewers into an unfamiliar world in which an encounter with the visual potentially offered new forms of social and cultural intelligence about the self and society.”[vi] It was through these unfamiliar encounters in viewers minds where human rights began to develop, although human rights of the 1940s are often situated within the landmark laws and declarations of the decade–the 1941 Atlantic Charter and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[vii]

However, it is important to note that although human rights were emerging as an important part of the national conversation in the United States, there was still limited progress in terms of the nation’s own actions. As Americans were being bombarded with images of liberated Nazi concentration camps, or stories of suffering under Latin American regimes, their own government was holding thousands of citizens of Japanese descent in so-called “relocation centers” throughout its Western states. Under the guise of national security, Executive Order 9066 stripped countless Americans of due process and denied equal protection under the law; it was more than just a violation of American rights, but of general human rights as well. Worse still, there was little acknowledgement of the government’s own human rights abuses as they were taking place, and even in later decades these transgressions were hardly acknowledged.[viii] In the 1980s, a group of Japanese-Americans had their convictions formally overturned, but even in the 21st century, the Supreme Court case justifying Japanese internment remains to be officially overruled.[ix] Indeed, human rights were entering discourse more frequently, but they had only done so in an idealistic fashion; the actual implementation and protection of these rights had yet to take place.

This lack of any meaningful human rights action or progress is especially apparent during the 1950s and 1960s. In these decades, interest in human rights dropped off considerably, shown by both the lack of large milestones, but in public sentiment as well. As I have argued, human rights are situated not within laws or declarations, but within the minds of individuals. And during these decades, both of these locations were almost entirely devoid of human rights discourse. It is likely that this decline was influenced by a multitude of factors. For one, conversations surrounding human rights would invariably lead to turning the spotlight inwards, and Americans being forced to acknowledge their nation’s own violations. In other words, it was easy for the nation to be in conversations of human rights, but a much more difficult undertaking to become the subject of those conversations.[x] Furthermore, the Presidents of this era, from Eisenhower through Nixon, were much more focused on bolstering the United States’ position as a world power and defending its own sovereignty. Though human rights were not explicitly diminished or reduced in the 1950s and 1960s, they certainly did fall to the wayside. Bradley defines the 1940s and 1970s as two major “ticks” and “tocks” of history, and largely rushes through the interim period. However, the fact that human rights dropped off in these decades highlights their limited nature. They may come up and enter discourse at the various “ticks” and “tocks” of history, but are not necessarily fully established that they exist universally during the interim decades. The idea of human rights is alive and well, though the actual existence and universality of those rights is less established.

Despite their decline in the 1950s and 1960s, human rights were experiencing a resurgence in the 1970s. Largely as a response to the Vietnam war, this decade was marked by a general shift toward trends of “moral witness” and “testimonial truth.” Countless non-profits and other non-governmental organizations took up the charge of human rights, and helped to bring human rights back into everyday discourse. President Jimmy Carter summarized this sentiment in his statement that “Throughout the world today … there is a preoccupation with the subject of human freedom, human rights.”[xi] Despite the support from the U.S. Presidency, human rights in the 1970s was marked not by landmark government actions, but instead as an ideal that existed and spread in the minds and personal sentiments of individual people. Testimony and personal accounts helped to “sear images” into the minds of everyday individuals and forced them to at the very least acknowledge issues of human rights. Instead of government policy or international agencies, it was instead cultural products–art, music, television, and other forms of personal narratives, that “were critical in shaping human rights consciousness in the United States.”[xii] Human rights, to the limited extent that they did exist, were situated in cultural products and in the general American consciousness, but not necessarily in landmark laws or declarations.

For instance, in 1975 a total of 35 signed the Helsinki Act, which guaranteed “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”[xiii] Even the Soviet Union, which had been the focus of many human rights cultural works, signed the Act. However, to say that human rights existed within this international agreement fails to describe the full circumstances. For one, though the Act asserts and claims to protect a wide array of rights, it still fell short of ensuring that those rights were universal and accessible to all human. Of course, this is the downfall of nearly all human rights actions, and is the reason why I hesitate to state that human rights even exist at all. But more importantly, to ascribe a landmark such as the Helsinki Act as the place where human rights exists actually serves to diminish the work of individual authors, writers, and artists who brought human rights into the collective conscious of Americans. One such example of this is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book The Gulag.[xiv] This personal account of life in a Soviet Prison camp was largely responsible for bringing “the other great Holocaust of our century”[xv] into the homes of average Americans. Once again, human rights became something that individual people could become engaged with. It was this personal association that did significantly more for the progress of human rights than any landmark law, declarations, or any other government policy ever did.

During the 1970s, human rights still failed to become universally realized for all people. Though there were some landmark government actions, and certainly plenty of conversations surrounding human rights, they had still yet to be accessible and protected for all humans. So while this unfortunately means that human rights never have fully existed, it does not necessarily require us to take a wholly pessimistic view on the subject. Even if they do not exist, human rights are nonetheless a useful ideal, and represent the best of what humanity could be, and something that we ought to strive for. In this sense, the 1940s and the 1970s can represent historical moments in which awareness of human rights issues was at its highest. Although human rights have yet to become universalized, these “ticks” and “tocks” of history highlight at least a general direction that we may be headed in.

Bradley suggests that if the 1970s was the last “tick,” then the present historic moment is the next “tock.” Unfortunately, human rights progress has regress slightly in the 21st century. Although there is still significant discourse surrounding human rights, it seems greatly diminished as compared to the 1940s and 1970s. Furthermore, the limited amount of human rights discourse is not met with similar action on a governmental level. Perhaps this is because the collective consciousness of Americans does not demand a focus on human rights quite to the same extent. For instance, in 2011 public opinion surveys found that a majority of Americans believed that the use of torture could be justified in certain situations.[xvi] More recently, the United States has left the United Nations Human Rights Council[xvii] as well as has tightened its refugee admission policies.[xviii] In this sense, it seems that the nation is much more self-interested and, much like in the 1950s and 1960s, has lost interest in the promotion of human rights. Once again, although human rights exist as an ideal that we might strive for, in the current historic moment it seems that we are no longer striving for it to quite the same extent as in the past. Human rights do not exist, and they never will exist if we do not keep discussing them, believing in them, and taking action to achieve them. It certainly feels that progress toward human rights has stalled, but this does not necessarily mean that they are a lost cause entirely. In the 1950s and 1960s human rights declined, but were picked back up in the 1970s, the next “tock” of history. By that logic, we may simply have found ourselves in the interim period before the next “tick.” However, by continuing to foster discourse, as well as promote cultural products and media, it is possible for human rights to re-enter the collective consciousness with a renewed spirit. And perhaps, through that undertaking, we may soon reach the next “tick” of history, and take another gradual step towards human rights truly being universal, and finally existing as a real and lasting guarantee.


[i] “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” October 6, 2015,

[ii] Mark Philip Bradley, The World Reimagined: Americans and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 5.

[iii] Sakharov, quoted in Bradley, 173.

[iv] Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (W. W. Norton & Company, 2008).

[v] Bradley, The World Reimagined.

[vi] Bradley, 38.

[vii] “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”; “1941: The Atlantic Charter,” August 25, 2015,; Bradley, The World Reimagined. Bradley describes these two declarations has being supported by the “scaffolding” of public sentiment made possible through cultural products and photographic reportage.

[viii] Steven Okazaki, Unfinished Business, accessed October 3, 2018,

[ix] Okazaki; Executive Order 9066 was ruled constitutional in Korematstu vs. United States (1944). In Trump v. Hawaii (2018), Chief Justice Roberts wrote that Korematsu has been overruled in “the court of history,” but it remains to be officially overruled by the Supreme Court.

[x] Bradley, The World Reimagined, 10.

[xi] Bradley, 123.

[xii] Bradley, 183.

[xiii] Bradley, 151.

[xiv] Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Vol. 1 edition (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

[xv] Bradley, The World Reimagined, 173.

[xvi] Bradley, 223.

[xvii] Imogen Foulkes, “Why Did the US Leave the UN Human Rights Council?,” BBC News, June 20, 2018, sec. US & Canada,

[xviii] American Immigration Council, “An Overview of U.S. Refugee Law and Policy,” November 18, 2015,


“1941: The Atlantic Charter,” August 25, 2015.

American Immigration Council. “An Overview of U.S. Refugee Law and Policy,” November 18, 2015.

Bradley, Mark Philip. The World Reimagined: Americans and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Foulkes, Imogen. “Why Did the US Leave the UN Human Rights Council?” BBC News, June 20, 2018, sec. US & Canada.

Hunt, Lynn. Inventing Human Rights: A History. W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.

Okazaki, Steven. Unfinished Business. Accessed October 3, 2018.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. Vol. 1 edition. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

“Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” October 6, 2015.

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