Google Books NGram Viewer: International Law and Human Rights

I’m intrigued by the Books NGram Viewer, a Google Labs tool that allows you to graph the prevalence of certain published words or phrases over time. The tool offers a potentially interesting starting point for investigating the historical relationship between two different, but intersecting, concepts.

For example, searching the phrases “international law” and “human rights” in English-language books, published in 1800-2008, generated this chart:

What interests me most are periods in which “human rights” is more prevalent than “international law,” as well as periods of sharp change in the prevalence of each term. This includes an earlier-than-I-expected bump for “human rights” in the 1830s, and a steep rise in the prevalence of “human rights” from around 1975 to 2000; during both periods, “international law” remained fairly flat, while “human rights” apparently gained in currency. (Pardon me while I google the 1830s. . . . Ah, the Indian Removal Act.)

Certain trends are easily explained (e.g., a peak for “international law” in the late 1910s, correlating with the formation of the League of Nations). But I wonder what to make of the pronounced drop-off in the term “human rights” after approximately 2001: any relation to September 11 and the ensuing Global War on Terror? Must investigate further.

So much for catching up on reading for classes today.


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