The international uproar over the American treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay is but the latest illustration of the extent to which we now inhabit a world of human rights. Everyone supports them. Not even Donald Rumsfeld comes out against them. Critics may argue that they represent a western attempt to ride roughshod over diverse cultural sensibilities, or yet another imposition of the tyranny of Enlightenment values. Many people say that they are honoured only in the breach. But whether reality or rhetoric, human rights are a global phenomenon.
This was not so before the Second World War. The language of rights that emerged at the time of the French and American revolutions had only a minor impact on diplomatic practice. Not even groups such as the National Council for Civil Liberties or France's Rights of Man league were much concerned with human rights in the broad sense in which we use the phrase today.
How, then, in the space of just a few years, between the Atlantic Charter in 1941 and the founding of the United Nations at the end of the war, did the language of human rights come to occupy such a prominent position in international diplomacy that the new world order would be built upon a commitment to their advancement? Why did the states grouped together in the UN come to accept what amounted to a curtailment of their power over their citizens or subjects? Was it all down to the power of a vision and its visionaries? This, which we might call the Eleanor Roosevelt version of history, is only part of the story. There have been many tireless advocates for human rights in the past: some, like the emigre Russian lawyer Andre Mandelstam, laboured in vain; others, like the originator of the Genocide Convention, Raphael Lemkin, or Eleanor Roosevelt herself, were more successful. Yet they were successful only because states heeded them. It was President Harry S Truman who appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to the UN commission that was responsible for drafting the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Why did he do so?
In another version of the story, the impetus comes from the Nazi atrocities, especially the Holocaust. This offers history in the guise of a morality tale: the realisation of man's capacity for ultimate evil led to the triumph of good. Yet the Holocaust as such was much less central to perceptions in 1945 of what the war had been about than it is today. And we still have to explain how those hard-bitten state bureaucrats, from Moscow to Whitehall, who had successfully resisted the siren call of moral feeling in the past, should now have succumbed. The postwar rise of human rights can be recounted as the triumph of civilisation over realpolitik. But it cannot be explained fully unless we are aware that it also involved an element of cynicism, and that it served state interests, too.
It was only after the defeat of Napoleon that the Great Powers began seriously intervening in the affairs of other states in the name of humanitarianism and civilisation. Through the 19th century, the Concert of Powers evolved a set of constitutional principles, including a commitment to freedom of worship, and the abolition of religious and civil disabilities, which they tried to impose on new states seeking to join the European "family of nations". Hence they sought to force reform on the Ottoman empire, and later made international recognition of the new Balkan states conditional upon their pledging fair treatment of religious minorities. During the First World War, the importance of these cases was magnified as old multinational empires finally fragmented and exploded in a welter of inter-religious and inter-ethnic violence. The murder of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915-16 - which led the Entente Powers to appeal to the Ottoman authorities to stop the killing in the name of humanity and to threaten the postwar prosecution of those involved - was only the most extreme example. The bloodletting continued after the war. In 1918-19, there were reports of pogroms in eastern Poland and Bessarabia, and huge flows of refugees.
Meeting to draw up a peace settlement in Paris, the victors in the war were committed to recognising new national states in eastern Europe on the basis of the principle of self-determination. The difficulty was that, as the news from Galicia suggested, these new states might well make the problem worse by harshly handling their minorities. The powers therefore made international recognition of the new states conditional upon their guaranteeing their minorities certain collective entitlements. What was new in this situation was that the monitoring and enforcement of these rights was entrusted to a new international organisation, the League of Nations, rather than to the Great Powers themselves. It was this system, for the organised international protection of group minority rights - not human rights as we conceive them - that formed the subject of public concern and discussion in the interwar era. We cannot understand the turn to human rights after 1945 properly unless we see it against this historical background.
The League system fitted squarely into an earlier Victorian tradition of Great Power paternalism, a paternalism that coexisted comfortably with both liberal Christianity and racism. A Japanese proposal that the League should be committed to racial equality was shelved unceremoniously, while the idea of making the minority rights regime universal, rather than specific just to the new states of eastern Europe, was dismissed early on. The League was not to be allowed to pontificate about racial segregation in the US, nor about the English treatment of Catholics or of the Chinese in Liverpool. And because Germany was not brought into the system either, there would be no way for the League to protest the Nazi treatment of German Jews after 1933.
In the event, the League's foray into minority rights pleased no one. The Great Powers hated being required to pass judgement on how Poland or Czechoslovakia - their client states - were behaving. As Germany and the USSR regained strength, the British and French almost entirely lost their appetite for anything that might weaken the eastern European states they had brought into existence. Those states in turn felt humiliated by the international obligations they had been forced to sign, and blamed their minorities for publicising their grievances and failing to assimilate. And the minorities themselves, as a result of these factors, gradually lost faith in the protection provided by international law. Their complaints to Geneva dried up.
It is largely forgotten today that, between the wars, Germans were the largest ethnic minority in eastern Europe. They lived in Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic states, as far south as Greece, and in the USSR to the east. Their fate was a huge issue in Weimar Germany. With the collapse of the League, the way was open for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to carve out a foreign policy that would replace Geneva's weak commitment to protection through international law and supranational co-operation with national expansionism, bilateral diplomacy and the use of force. National socialism was concerned above all else with the fate of the Germans abroad. Indeed, the war Berlin waged from 1938 is best viewed as a war on behalf of "Germandom", which would solve the racial tangle of eastern Europe by a combination of territorial conquest and forced population movements. Ethnic Germans were ordered to leave the Baltic states, Italy and the USSR and make their way into the welcoming arms of the Reich, so that they could be resettled eventually on lands seized from Slav inferiors in the east.
It was against the backdrop of these events that President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met in August 1941 and, even before the United States entered the war, made the first of a series of statements intended to define more sharply what the war was about. Almost from the start, Churchill himself stressed the need to defend the rights of the individual. In January 1942, the 26 countries that signed the Declaration of the United Nations pledged not only to adhere to the principles contained in the Atlantic Charter, but to join in a crusade "to preserve human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in other lands". Thenceforth, in official - and even more in unofficial - thinking and planning for the postwar era, the subject came up again and again, until gradually it became an integral aspect of the new international security organisation, initially unnamed, later termed the United Nations Organisation, that was to take over from the discredited League.
The reasons why human rights jumped to wartime prominence are various. In the first place, both the British and the Americans wanted to reaffirm the principles of liberal democracy vis-a-vis authoritarian regimes that, as in the Nazi case, had come out explicitly against the rights of the individual. The need to reassert those rights against the power of the state was evidently a natural by-product of a liberal view that the war had started because of the inherent bellicosity of dictatorships. Second, the Americans in particular wanted to carve out a universal mission for themselves internationally, and the British were content to go along with this because they desperately wanted the Americans at their side both in the war and after it. But the third, and perhaps the most important, reason was simply that human rights offered an attractive and plausible alternative to minority rights.
The League and all it stood for were discredited by the time the war started; it was not helped by the notoriously pro-Nazi stance of Joseph Avenol, its second secretary-general. Of those who had pushed for minority rights the last time around, few were left. No one much bothered with what the Germans thought: they were about to be expelled en masse from eastern Europe in the largest single forced population movement in European history. As for Jewish groups, they entered the war deeply ambivalent about the minority rights system: it had, after all, failed to protect the German Jews from Hitler. Those who did not turn to Zionism now felt that being singled out as a minority was itself inviting trouble: better to stand - as they had done in the 19th century - on their rights as individuals than as a group. The British, for their part, had ended up pretty lukewarm about being asked, as they saw it, to defend the indefensible before the war. They were happy enough to bury the whole thing. And indeed, with the Red Army sweeping all before it and likely to be in control of eastern Europe, it was obvious to Whitehall that resuscitating the old League system would never prove acceptable to the Russians.
But it was above all the representatives of those small east European states that had been forced to swallow the bitter pill of minority rights last time around which came out most strongly against being forced to try it all over again. The Czech president Eduard Benes wrote in January 1942 that the Germans must never again be allowed to take advantage of the generosity of the Czech state. Even at this stage, he was convinced that Czechs and Germans could no longer live together. There must be, he argued, a transfer of population after the war, and the League's system of giving minorities collective entitlements - to schooling in their own language, for instance - must give way to an approach that focused instead on treating all citizens of the state equally before the law. Here lay the fundamental difference between minority and human rights: the former identified people as members of a group, the latter as individuals. "The protection of minorities in the future," Benes wrote, "should consist in the defence of human democratic rights and not of national rights. Minorities in individual states must never again be given the character of internationally recognised political and legal units, with the possibility of again becoming sources of disturbance."
The idea of minority rights did not die all at once. It was still being discussed, rather gloomily, inside the Foreign Office after the war had ended. In 1946, the Hungarians tried to propose a revival of the system at the Paris peace conference in order to protect Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries; but that this should not happen was one of the few things the British, the Russians and the Americans could agree on easily. Benes's argument won out, and although they were little discussed at San Francisco in 1945, human rights were prominently if briefly highlighted in the United Nations Charter, which defined, among the chief purposes of the UN, "promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction to race, sex, language or religion".
But just what were the United Nations committing themselves to? Enforcement was the nub of it. Preparing a background briefing before the San Francisco conference, one British Foreign Office official had wondered whether the UN Charter might include a clause guaranteeing human rights. This elicited a sharp reminder from Charles Webster, the historian who advised the FO on these matters: "Our policy," he wrote, "is to avoid 'guarantee of human rights' though we might not object to a declaration."
There was no appetite among the big powers for any form of words which implied that the UN, or any other group, should have the right to enforce observation of human rights. Thanks to the Americans in particular, a stringent domestic jurisdiction clause protected member states from the intervention of rights activists. In the next three years, the UN's Commission on Human Rights, with Eleanor Roosevelt in the chair, began to put flesh on the bare bones of the charter. And there, too, the strength of American resistance to any form of human rights regime with teeth became very obvious. There would be no immediate binding convention, nor any scheme for implementation. What was left were words, better known as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Bereft of any system by which to enforce the rights it lauded, the declaration was regarded by many international lawyers as so much hot air, a step back from the ambitions enshrined in the minority rights system. At least the League had granted an international body the right to monitor, and indeed intervene, in the internal affairs of some states in defence of a body of citizens. It now looked as though the price paid for ensuring that the League's successor took a universal approach to rights was to strip that approach of any efficacy. Human rights became little more than a cold-war football. Minority rights were kept off the agenda entirely. "He who dedicates his life to the study of international law in these troubled times," wrote Joseph Kunz, an Austrian emigre in 1954, "is sometimes struck by the appearance as if there were fashions in international law just as in neckties. At the end of the First World War, 'international protection of minorities' was the great fashion: treaties in abundance, conferences, League of Nations activities, an enormous literature. Recently this fashion has become nearly obsolete. Today the well-dressed international lawyer wears 'human rights'."
In the past decade, events in Yugoslavia and Rwanda have reminded us, if we needed reminding, that wishing away the problem of minorities was no answer to what remains an urgent political issue. Since then, the Europeans in particular have set up mechanisms to monitor the collective rights of minorities. As for human rights, appreciating the extent to which they offered - at least as established in the United Nations after the end of the war - a vehicle for a new US role abroad, without impinging upon that country's juridical autonomy at home, may help us understand why the country of the American constitution and the Bill of Rights has been so reluctant to support efforts to turn pious promises and vague affirmations into enforceable guarantees.
Mark Mazower is professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London. This essay is based on his inaugural lecture, given on 31 January