This article examines the impact of the late 1970s ‘breakthrough’ in human rights, as it was registered within the United Nations. It analyses the debates on human rights at the thirtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in December 1978, and those a decade later. These two moments, among the few that invited explicit reflection from states on the meaning of human rights, and of their universality, reveal that the effects of the ‘breakthrough’ arrived at the UN after a long period of latency. Even by 1988, their manifestation was only partial, and often contradictory. The profound gap between the efflorescence in the NGO movement and the depressing stasis, or worse, elsewhere suggests the need for a more complex periodization of the 1970s as an era of decisive triumph in the ascent of human rights.