It took me a long time to pay attention to human rights and an even longer time to want to read and teach about them. I was a child of the 1960s, immersed in the antiwar movement, student protests, and the women's movement. The languages we spoke in the last decades of the Cold War were ones of class, race, and gender, of possible socialisms and the problems of capitalism. In my teaching on twentieth-century European history during the 1970s and 1980s, human rights hardly figured at all, for the Cold War, economic recovery, European integration, Americanization, Social Democracy, and new social movements took center stage. In the 1980s, when some of my students started talking enthusiastically about Helsinki Watch and the need to defend the human rights of Eastern Europeans, I was surprised and puzzled. I didn't know a lot about the socialist regimes there, but wasn't this a return to cold war binaries and crude anti-communism? Criticisms of Latin American dictatorships for human rights violations and the various UN Women's Conferences suggested other possibilities for a language and politics of human rights, but they were not hegemonic before 1989.
By the 1990s human rights were everywhere. Human rights have deep and very complex origins, which are the subject of much scholarly contestation, but they unquestionably gained new prominence during the multifaceted economic, political, and social crises of the long 1970s. There was the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, drawn up by the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, with its famous Basket III that called for "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief," and contained human rights language affirming freer human contacts, family reunification, and educational and cultural exchanges. (1) While the immediate impact of Helsinki was limited, its rhetorical appeal was great, both among dissidents in Eastern Europe and their supporters in the West. Governments in Europe and the United States devoted greater attention to human rights violations in both Europe and Latin America, although with limited ability to curb or punish violators. There was a proliferation of NGOs devoted to human rights, as groups like Human Rights Watch, Doctors without Borders, and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo joined older ones like Amnesty International. Women's rights as human rights were hotly debated at UN Women's Conferences, in development projects, and among women's NGOs.
In the wake of the collapse of communism, human rights (along with neoliberalism) became hegemonic. In the post-Cold War global order human rights are widely invoked, although much less often respected. They provide the privileged language in which demands can be made, good causes advocated, legitimacy claimed, and interventions of all sorts justified. States have to take account of human rights in their policies at home and in terms of their reputational status and possibilities for aid and alliances abroad.
Scholarship followed politics and there has been a flood of books and articles, academic conferences, UN reports, and NGO activities devoted to analyzing, publicizing, praising, and criticizing the human rights conventions and treaties and the UN, governmental and nongovernmental organizations devoted to human rights activism. Such activism ranges from promoting women's human rights to punishing war criminals in international criminal tribunals, from condemning torture to elaborating a human right to development, from protecting indigenous cultures to bolstering democracy. Closely associated with human rights activism are the varied humanitarian interventions around issues of famine, epidemics, and refugees. Finally, after 1989 there have been the so-called "humanitarian" interventions of a militarized sort, such as in Kosovo, Libya, and now Syria. These are justified in part on the grounds that countries have a Responsibility to Protect citizens of another country if it is held to be violating their human rights.
Given the prevalence of human rights discourses, institutions, organizations, and interventions and given the widespread, if often uncritical, enthusiasm for human rights among students, it seems imperative to teach about human rights. Marilyn Young and I teach a course on Human Rights and "Humanitarian" Interventions to a diverse group of MA and PhD students from History, Journalism, and interdisciplinary humanities and social science programs. Some of them work with human rights NGOs. The first thing we try to convey is the sheer diversity and messiness of the history and contemporary practice of human rights. Since we are historians, we put current human rights debates, policies, and activism in a longer historical context. The resulting narrative is hardly a triumphalist story of the gradual but inevitable rise of human rights or the unambiguous goodness of human rights activists and activism, as many Americans are prone to assume. Rather, it is a complex and contradictory story, filled with people acting from complicated and often self- interested motives and with laws and interventions producing unintended consequences. There are multiple actors and institutions, political, legal and economic, involved in disputing every aspect of the origins, definition, and implementation of human rights as well as the punishment of violators. The meaning and practice of human rights are fought over and worked out on multiple levels--in international institutions, regional human rights courts, national governments, and local and national NGOs.
The intention is not to criticize human rights across the board, for much that is useful has been and can be defended and claimed in its name. Nor is it to discourage students from human rights activism. Rather, it is to warn against facile assumptions about which rights are and are not human rights, about who does and does not defend human rights, and about the consequences of "humanitarian" interventions, especially of a militarized sort. Before exploring these assumptions and how we complicate them, let me say a few words about the overall structure of our course.
The course opens with an exploration of where and when to locate the idea of human rights--an issue of ongoing and lively dispute. Is it in the Enlightenment? The American and French Revolutions? The anti-slavery movement? Nineteenth- and twentieth-century debates about internationalism and global governance? And what about humanitarian movements such as the Red Cross? This section of the course concludes with an examination of how and by whom the key human rights documents of the late 1940s and early 1950s were drafted. Were they...