“At the Bar of Public Sentiment”

The Congo Free State Controversy, Atrocity Tales, and Human Rights History

  • Derrick M. Nault


A key question in human rights history concerns when human rights originated. Common starting points include Greco-Roman civilization, the early eras of world religions, the French and American Revolutions, and the founding of the United Nations. Taking a very different approach, Moyn (2010) stresses that historians must distinguish between rights and human rights and determine when the former transitioned to the latter, suggesting that this shift took place in the 1970s. This paper agrees with Moyn’s idea that human rights require an international dimension that challenges state sovereignty from without, as opposed to rights and their restriction to the confines of the nation-state. However, it questions his periodization and historians’ tendency to view human rights as emerging in self-contained Western settings. It suggests instead that human rights originated as a concept in the 1890s in response to a crisis of colonial rule in Africa. Specifically, it posits that changing viewpoints of Africa and Africans within the international community made possible by atrocity tales concerning King Leopold II of Belgium’s Congo Free State commenced our human rights age. Birthed by the colonial encounter between Europe and Africa, human rights therefore represent more than the offspring of events, ideas or personalities in ancient or contemporary Western contexts but form part of a shared global heritage.