Samuel Moyn is a professor of history at Columbia University and the author of “The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History.”
THE international commotion around the blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng aroused memories of earlier dissidents like Andrei D. Sakharov and Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, the Eastern bloc heroes of another age who first made “international human rights” a rallying cry for activists across the globe and a high-profile item on Western governments’ agendas.
All the familiar elements were there: the lone icon speaking for moral principle against totalitarian rule, the anonymous but courageous network at home that sheltered him, the supporters abroad who rallied around his cause, and the governments that made their choices based on a difficult calculus of moral ideals and geopolitical interests. The cat-and-mouse game of Mr. Chen’s surreptitious flight and America’s response resembled cold war cloak-and-dagger intrigue, too, but dissidents then sometimes were pushed into their own underground railroads, and often states bargained over their ultimate fate.
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights — which Peng-Chun Chang, a representative of Nationalist China, helped draft — had virtually no impact on world politics in its time. It was only 30 years later that Soviet dissidents and refugees from Latin American dictatorships catapulted human rights to visibility. In part because it was so new, the idea of international human rights initially seemed an uncontroversial effort to establish moral norms above the fray of the cold war’s ideological battles....