Justin Zaremby


In The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Samuel Moyn attempts to

correct the recent historiography of human rights and international law. He

criticizes historians who fail to understand that theories of contemporary human

rights, which envision rights in a world not dominated by the sovereignty of

nation-states, did not evolve out of historic discussions of political and human

rights. Moyn argues that international lawyers and advocates who fail to

understand that today's idealistic definition of human rights arose unexpectedly in

the 1970s lack the understanding and drive to properly advocate for today's

utopian vision of rights. In making this claim, he rejects what historians might call

a "whig" approach to human rights history -a historical narrative that reveals a

clear evolutionary path toward progress. This Book Review examines Moyn's

claims and discusses the origin of the term whig history. It then suggests that whig

approaches to history, although possibly inaccurate, in fact have a persuasive power

which advocates of human rights and international law could use to further

Moyn's idealistic aims.