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The inanities of contemporary human rights provisions regularly furnish comic entertainment. My favourite is the case of Leading Hand Chris Cranmer, the naval technician allowed to practise Satanism on board the Royal Navy frigate HMS Cumberland. There are now some 500 pagan police officers, with their own Pagan Police Association. And over on the dark side, as it were, pagan prisoners are allowed candles and (hoodless) cowls to practise their rituals at Her Majesty's pleasure.

Criticisms of human rights legislation invariably focus on the absurdities of each proliferating instance of legalised craziness. There is something untoward about granting tree and Old Nick worshippers the same rights as adherents of major religions. In so far as critics venture any deeper, it is to highlight the contemporary culture of human rights lawyers and lobbyists, notably Liberty's Shami Chakrabarti and Baroness Helena Kennedy, ubiquitous presences on any BBC programme presented by the Brothers Dimbleby.

A new book, The Last Utopia (Harvard, £20.95) by the Columbia University historian Samuel Moyn, provides much more considered arguments to those who, heretically nowadays, refuse to take the human rights culture at their preening self-estimation. He shows how phenomena that many people assume to be immemorial lack deep provenance. There was a parodic anticipation of Moyn's approach in 1968, when the Iranian dictator, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, opened a UN human rights anniversary conference in Tehran by claiming that such rights had been pioneered by his remote predecessor Cyrus the Great.

Moyn dispenses with the idea that human rights have much to do with the slave-owning ancient Greeks, let alone with the "rights of man" of the French Revolution. The latter were a subset of citizenship within state structures, rather than how one might treat those stranded within the interstices of the nation states. There were a growing number of societies and organisations with the title "international", but none was concerned with international human rights. If anything, such a concern emerged on the Right, in the form of Catholic personalism, in reaction to the statism of the Jacobins and their 20th-century totalitarian successors. The European Convention on Human Rights may have sounded grand in 1950, but it was a dead letter until external developments gave it momentum. 

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