Why It Is Time for a Much More Critical History of Human Rights

Mr. Weitz is Distinguished McKnight University Professor and Chair, History Department, Arsham and Charlotte Ohanessian Chair in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy.

On his Asia visit of the last few days, President Obama artfully dodged many of the burning issues relating to China's miserable record on human rights. But he did offer a history lesson. He told Chinese students that human rights represented universal, not just American, values. No doubt he had in mind the famed Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. The Republic of China, it is worth remembering, was one of the original signatories, and its representative, P. C. Chang, had played an important role in its drafting. The People's Republic of China never disavowed its predecessor's support of the UDHR.

By offering a global perspective, the President did better than some historians, who have argued recently that international human rights are largely an American invention. Obama might not have realized it, but with his history lesson he joined a trend. The recent slew of books, articles, conference sessions, and dissertations in the works are abundant signs that historians have suddenly discovered human rights. We have been very good at the crimes side of the ledger. We write and teach about wars, revolutions, dictatorships, and genocides. Where there has been violence, the historians come, hard on the heels of the peacemakers. But human rights? That has been the field for lawyers and legal scholars, political scientists and a few sociologists, activists in NGOs who then have put their experiences to paper.

Why, at this moment in time, have historians suddenly taken on human rights as a topic of their own?

It is worth recalling that human rights is also a relatively new field for other disciplines. Only since 1980 or so have political scientists and legal scholars developed human rights as recognized sub-fields of their disciplines. Aryeh Neier recently commented that in the 1970s, he knew of only one course in the entire country on human rights. That one was at the UC-Berkeley Law School, and the professor who taught it was looked at askance by his colleagues.. The founding of human rights centers at universities, almost invariably located in law schools, also goes back to around 1980, with the big surge coming only in the last fifteen years. But for historians, the field is even more recent, in fact, is just beginning.

Like everyone else, historians respond to the events around them. The upsurge since around 1980 in human rights activism of all sorts has clearly propelled historians to start claiming the topic as their own. Jimmy Carter's declaration that American foreign policy would be governed by human rights, the Helsinki Accords, dissident movements in Eastern Europe, national tribunals in post-dictatorship societies, starting with Greece, Portugal, and Argentina, truth and reconciliation commissions, the international tribunals of the 1990s culminating in the founding of the International Criminal Court -- one would have to be completely lost in the world of video games or reality television not to have noticed these dramatic developments.

But there is something more. Human rights is the last ideology left standing. The great promises of liberalism and socialism have been shattered. Feminism does not have quite the edge it did twenty and thirty years ago. The current economic crisis has buried neoconservatism and cowboy capitalism. What is there left to hold on to? -- the promise of human rights soaring across oceans and rippling through societies however diverse they may be. That gives hope for a better future, and is a way that historians can connect their intellectual work with a progressive political project.

The handful of historical studies that we do have are noteworthy, but limited. They present a linear history as if there existed a straight line from the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the UDHR in 1948. Or the founding moment is seen to be 1941 and the Atlantic Charter or 1945 and the establishment of the United Nations, both expressions of the high tide of American international liberalism. In either case, whatever the founding date, the recent studies present the history of human rights as largely American in origin (sometimes France is allowed into the act) and the result exclusively of intentional political action -- a strange concept indeed when that understanding of, for example, the French Revolution has long been dethroned, when one book and article after another has shown a revolutionary ideology that developed in the maelstrom of revolution, that has shown the protagonists groping their way toward a culture and practice, inventing "The Revolution" as they went along.

Moreover, the histories that have recently been published assimilate group rights into individual rights as if there were no conceptual or political difficulties with these two very distinct concepts. As a result, the entire period from the 1860s to 1945, when group rights in the form of minority rights dominated the landscape, gets short shrift, and the period after 1945 is seen simply as the triumph of an individualistic conception of rights. Yet the UN Charter itself affirmed the right of self-determination, and every major UN convention and declaration from the mid-1950s onward did the same. Self-determination is patently about groups, not individuals. Why then do we call the post-1945 period the triumph of an individualistic conception of rights?

Most important, the new histories present human rights as the humane corrective to atrocity crimes. But what if crimes and rights are not polar opposites, but are conceptually linked? As Hannah Arendt noted long ago, the grave problem with the invention of rights in the French Revolution was the tight linkage drawn between rights and membership in the nation. Citizenship always excludes. Those outside the nation's citizenry, whether living within the nation-state's bounded territory or not, are literally nowhere. Statelessness is the worst possible situation in which a person can exist, because then she or he has no claim whatsoever on rights.

It is time for a much more critical history of human rights. President Obama's history lesson provides us with one starting point: an international, not just a US-based perspective. Most important, there is no history of human rights without a history of crimes against humanity. They emerged together, not just as the good of rights battling against the evil of crimes, a Manichean struggle that will ultimately lead us to the Elysian Fields, but, rather, as intimately related ways of thinking about populations as discrete nations or races, the humane and the lethal intimately entwined.

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