The Europeanization of the World: On the Origins of Human Rights and Democracy

In an effort to provide a suitably thick patina of legitimacy for an institution whose beginnings date no further back than the time of Arthur Salter and Jean Monnet, the European Union has often made recourse to what can be called the ‘usable past.’ The language of the preamble to the European Union Constitution, to be incorporated in the Treaty of Lisbon, refers to ‘the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.’ As part of the current ‘Year of Intercultural Dialogue,’ the Slovene Presidency last month organised a conference in Ljubljana entitled ‘Europe, World and Humanity in the 21st Century,’ which focused in part on the question ‘What message can the Europe of today send to the world about understanding global issues, given its own humanistic tradition?’ For those seeking to better comprehend this much-emphasised humanistic tradition, its inheritance, and its impact on universalistic human rights values, a useful starting point from a narrative historical perspective is John Headley’s The Europeanization of the World: On the Origins of Human Rights and Democracy. Yet in attempting to trace the origin and evolution of contemporary human rights law, Headley all too often, though unintentionally quite instructively, runs afoul of the Enlightenment jurist Emmerich de Vattel’s warning that treatments of the law of nations are as a rule ‘vague, superficial, and often even mistaken.’ [1]

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