This article explores the trajectory of international human rights organizations between the 1940s and the 1970s. Providing detailed case studies of the International League for the Rights of Man and Amnesty International, it argues that the field of human rights NGOs underwent profound changes during this period. The League never moved beyond a marginal role because of its weak institutional structures, its focus on the United Nations, and because its work placed it at odds with the political scene in the U.S. Amnesty, by contrast, reinvented the techniques of human rights advocacy and saw its endeavors fuelled by a generation of activists eager to transcend earlier forms of civil protest. In the process, human rights NGOs began to have a much larger impact on international relations. This happened only in the 1970s, however, and produced new political dilemmas and contradictions.
In the global history of human rights in the twentieth century, decolonization is one of the most interesting fields to study. The independence of practically all of Africa’s and Asia’s nations, gained in the almost miraculously short span of the two decades after the Second World War, was one of the most dramatic processes of political emancipation in world history.