Online Sources on the History of Human Rights

by Daniel Stahl, University Jena

The Study Group Human Rights in the 20th Century’s online portal www.geschichte-menschenrechte.de publishes biographical interviews with  activists, politicians, and lawyers who advocated human rights as well as commentaries on key documents.

The collection of biographical interviews establishes a body of sources that situates the engagement with human rights in a biographical context, thereby expanding our understanding of how human rights became a central component of international politics in the 20th century. How do human rights advocates reflect on their own careers? What experiences do they view as important and how do they interpret those experiences? How do they assess their own commitment to human rights?

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The commentaries on key documents of the history of human rights aim to fill another gap: Recent scholarship has fundamentally altered our understanding of the rise of human rights to one of the key terms in political communication in the 20th century. The canon of documents found in conventional edited volumes published to date, however, are inadequate to explain this development. This project, therefore, offers a new selection of important texts for our understanding of the history of human rights.

The collection includes documents that exemplify a specific way in which the language of human rights has been used in different contexts. The impact of a given source is not the sole determining criteria. Some of the key texts may represent an abandoned tradition of human rights politics or even oppose the practice of human rights. This project aims to select documents representing the entire spectrum of relevant actors, discourses, and contexts in which human rights have been utilized.

Some of the canonical documents, however, have had a lasting impact on human rights policies, and therefore, with good reason, have traditionally been included in source collections related to human rights. Accordingly, they are also included in this collection of commentaries. However, it offers new insights into these documents by analyzing them on the basis of new approaches—for example postcolonial studies or global history.

The project utilizes the opportunities provided by its publication online to continuously expand and enhance the project’s body of sources, taking new research into account.


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