Skip to main content Skip to navigation

18: The Birth of the United Nations

In the final seminar of the module, we will consider the single most durable institutional outcome of World War II: the inauguration of the United Nations. Our particular focus will be on the humanitarian norms that the UN, and various of its agencies, attempted to articulate and enshrine in international law in the late 1940s. Historians have fiercely debated what this postwar moment meant for world politics and for the history of human rights. Had the atrocious suffering inflicted by belligerents in the 1930s and 1940s yielded a new era in which states would individually and collectively guarantee basic human rights? Or should we regard the UN's founding, and the UN declaration, through a less affirmative lens: great power politics in fancy dress?

Class slides.

Required reading:

Primary source: Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Mark Mazower, 'The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933-1950,' The Historical Journal 47, ii (June 2004): 379-398 [JSTOR]

Mark Philip Bradley, 'Approaching the Universal Declaration of Human Rights' in Akira Iriye, Petra Goedde and William I. Hitchcock, The Human Rights Revolution: An International History (OUP, 2012)

Further reading:

Elizabeth Borgwardt, A New Deal for the World: America's Vision for Human Rights (Harvard University Press, 2005)

Mark Philip Bradley, The World Reimagined: Americans and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2016) e-book

Kenneth Cmiel, 'The Recent History of Human Rights', American Historical Review 109, i (Feb. 2004): 117-35

Heide Fehrenbach and Davide Rodogno (eds), Humanitarian Photography: A History (Northern Illinois University Press, 2014) e-book

Mark Mazower, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton University Press, 2009)

Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard University Press, 2010)

AW Brian Simpson, Human Rights and the End of Empire: Britain and the Genesis of the European Convention (OUP, 2001)