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Rewriting The Origins Of Human Rights Law

Publication Date: 
September 21, 2012
H-Law (American Society for Legal History)
Michael Bobelian

Michael Bobelian from H-Law (American Society for Legal History) discusses how Professor Jenny Martinez's book, "The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law" successfully shatters the popular narrative on the origins of international human rights law.

To punish the Nazis for their crimes and forge laws to define, codify, and prevent future atrocities, the victors of World War II practically fashioned human rights law from scratch. In a short period following the war, a series of international tribunals successfully prosecuted criminals for human rights violations. At the same time, the United Nations Charter, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged as starting points of a global legal regime. Together, these awesome and unprecedented endeavors formed the foundation of international human rights law.

During the past few decades, this account of the origins of international human rights law has largely gone unchallenged with only a few other sources creeping into the conversation: ancient texts like the Bible and Magna Carta along with the Enlightenment's Bill of Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Scholars have also pointed to the influence of natural law and other conceptual frameworks as well as the primary precursors to international jurisprudence, the Geneva and Hague Conventions governing warfare. Yet, when it comes to the establishment of international human rights law, and a judicial system set up to enforce those laws, the conventional wisdom has looked to the Nuremberg trials and the contemporaneous work of icons like Eleanor Roosevelt as the architects.

In "The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law," Stanford Law School professor Jenny S. Martinez successfully shatters this popular narrative through her persuasive work of history. In place of this revolutionary epoch, she sheds light on a critical episode of human rights law largely neglected by historians. Starting in 1819, a handful of nations led by Great Britain established international judicial bodies to enforce treaties banning the slave trade. With judges from multiple nations presiding over these "Mixed Commissions" in locations on both sides of the Atlantic, they represented the first true international human rights tribunals--more than a century before Nuremberg. By the time they came to an end decades later, the commissions oversaw more than six hundred cases, freed eighty thousand slaves, and potentially saved ninety thousand others by seizing ships equipped for the slave trade. "In sheer human impact," Martinez concludes, "no other international court has directly affected so many individuals" (p. 85).