This article traces the global humanitarian sectors late twentieth-century embrace of human rights to the brutal civil conflict in El Salvador in the 1980s. Drawing on evidence from NGOs in three Anglophone states (Britain, Canada, and Ireland), it examines the moral and political debates that accompanied the breakthrough for human rights activism in that period, and how they conditioned contemporaneous understandings of aid. From that foundation, the article makes two claims. First, it argues that the triumph of human rights in the late twentieth century was the product of a complex set of diplomatic, intellectual, and ideological factors that were of global, rather than simply of Western, origin. Second, by tracing what could and could not be done in the name of humanitarianism, the article brings us closer to understanding how even the most outwardly progressive vision of intervention was produced within a very specific hierarchical and paternalistic imagining of the Global South.