Human-rights history in a global register has just begun to be told. As late as 1998 not a single reference to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) had appeared in any article in the American Historical Review. But by 2006 the field had become prominent enough for the president of the American Historical Association to claim "we are all historians of human rights." The history-of-rights talk has of course been part of scholarly practice for some time, whether it be histories of eighteenth-century revolutions in Europe and the Americas, the antislavery campaigns of the nineteenth century or the twentieth-century civil-rights movement in the United States. Now historians have begun to consider human rights on a global or transnational scale. The initial work in this new scholarly field focused on the making of international and regional human rights norms, such as the UDHR and conventions on genocide and statelessness. More recently scholars have begun to excavate the global explosion of human-rights thought and practice throughout the twentieth century, from more traditional concerns with political and civil rights to novel claims for economic, social, cultural, sexual, and indigenous rights. Historians have also begun to reexamine human-rights history before the twentieth century, using a global frame to rethink eighteenth-century Enlightenment rights talk, the turn to humanitarianism in the nineteenth century and its entanglements with empire and calls for international protections of minority rights at the beginning of the last century. In part the new human-rights history explores how norms, political institutions, legal regimes, the state, and civil society have shaped the human-rights past. It also offers densely textured microhistories of the myriad and complex local instantiations of human rights politics in the Euro-American world and in the global South.
Faculty and graduate students in the Department of History at the University of Chicago have been at the center of this new human-rights history. We offer a range of undergraduate and graduate courses on human-rights history, from an introductory discussion-based sequence in the College’s undergraduate Core to graduate research seminars. An interdisciplinary Human Rights Workshop offers graduate students opportunities to present work in progress. The university’s Pozen Family Center for Human Rights provides graduate students with substantial support for dissertation research, writing, and teaching.