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date: 22 April 2018

Human Rights and History

Summary and Keywords

As a focus of academic inquiry, human rights gained legitimacy only after World War II. While the subject received consistent attention within the field of international law, greater attention from other disciplines became more significant in the mid-1960s. Yet, it was after the Cold War, in the era of globalization, that human rights research became a well-entrenched interdisciplinary field. Even though no encompassing history of human rights was yet to be found in the late twentieth century, many important historical human rights studies had already appeared. Until the Cold War, the study of international relations had been grounded in efforts to integrate political theory and history. As ideological confrontation heightened during the Cold War, history became more descriptive, formalistic, and divorced from political theory, or from any normative or political purpose. With the end of the Cold War, the advance of globalization, the war on terror, and the current meltdown of the global economy, the past 20 years have sent a succession of electric shocks through the nervous system of the international order. The sense of being buffeted by unpredictable events stimulated new efforts to comprehend the direction of history, or, alternatively, to assert its timeless truths. Despite a significant body of enriching historical scholarship, however, it remains the case that both history and historiography have been widely overlooked, not only in the burgeoning human rights academic field, but also in most disciplines within the social sciences.

Keywords: human rights, history, Cold War, globalization, human rights research, human rights history, historical scholarship, historiography

Introduction

It is not surprising that questions pertaining to past and future directions of humanity are posed most intensely in times of global economic crisis or war. Since 1989, the world has moved from an illusory euphoria associated with Soviet defeat and the promises of globalization, to rampant nationalist and civil wars, to terrorist attacks, and to global economic recession. While some are forecasting that the great deluge is yet to come, others are thinking about how to rebuild the world with whatever olive branches can be salvaged from the shipwrecks of the world after September 11, 2001. Whether the world is moving toward deeper chaos or toward some vision of paradise, the questions of where we were, what we have become, and where we are going have been brought back, resonant with grim passages of history and with yearnings for a better future.

Imagining the future by looking into the past, as we travel through these dark times, is no easy endeavor, particularly when the field of human rights, with exceptions such as Shue (1996), Donnelly (2003), Lauren (2003) and Hunt (2007), is suffering from a paucity of theoretical and historical grounding. As we seek effective ways to advance human rights, the discipline needs to rediscover its historical roots, using theoretical instruments that illuminate future opportunities. Toward this end, this essay will first explore the changing scope of the field of human rights since World War II. It will review the role of history in the field, and how to reclaim a theoretical approach to history congenial with social transformation and progressive ends. It will defend this approach with reference to the author’s History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Era of Globalization (Ishay 2008), which was written with the hope of advancing the study and practice of human rights. The essay concludes with some reflections on the future.

A Brief Historical Account of the Human Rights Literature

The Changing Scope and Revival of Human Rights

The United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) includes five important families of rights: security, civil, political, socioeconomic, and cultural rights. These rights are universal, inalienable, and indivisible. While the Declaration was adopted in 1948 by the General Assembly, human rights can be rooted in the Enlightenment period, and arguably earlier. Yet as a focus of academic inquiry, human rights gained legitimacy only after World War II. As the world underwent significant changes after 1945, the preoccupations of human rights scholarship experienced a corresponding shift. While the subject received consistent attention within the field of international law, greater attention from other disciplines became more significant in the mid-1960s. Yet, it was after the Cold War, in the era of globalization, that human rights research became a well-entrenched interdisciplinary field. What accounts for changing perspectives on human rights since World War II? This question will animate this section, which considers four periods: the aftermath of World War II, the early Cold War, the late 1960s, and the era of globalization.

Post–World War II

In the shadow of World War II, the goals of preserving interstate peace and preventing genocide seemed both immediate and inseparable, as unprecedented carnage had included both international aggression and the Holocaust. The International Convention against Genocide (1948) and the UDHR (1948) became early focal points for legal scholars and politicians, who debated what constituted genocide, the level of responsibility attributed to those who committed crimes against humanity, and the responsibility of the international community. The Universal Declaration, a landmark document growing out of long debate within the first UN Human Rights Commission, announced to the world a new creed of human rights. That document stipulated five central families of rights: security, civil, political, socioeconomic, and cultural rights – all seen as indivisible and inalienable. With a new international architecture placing the UN (1945), the UN Charter (1945), and the UDHR (1948) at its foundations, tensions between the rights of states and their obligations to international human rights treaties would absorb the attention of the leading international legal scholars for decades to come (McDougal et al. 1980; Steiner and Alston 1996).

The Early Cold War

From the inauguration of the UDHR to the late 1960s, the Cold War revealed its ugly geopolitical face, as Russian tanks crushed the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968, and as the United States supported repressive regimes in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. In this cynical climate of bipolar rivalry, social science and international relations scholarship suffered from the marginalizing of moral preferences (let alone human rights), in favor of a perceived necessity to depict “impartially” the structural and functional dynamics of the domestic and international order. The social sciences gravitated around positivist, structuralist, or realpolitik approaches as standards for evaluating political decisions in a world that seemed stultified by the nuclear balance of terror.

What accounts for the apparent lack of interest in human rights outside the legal world during the peak of the Cold War? There are many overlapping reasons: it may well have been the fear of war between East and West; it may well have been the context of heightened ideological tension between capitalism and communism; it may well have been that this climate resulted in the demotion of human rights to the status of an intangible utopia incapable of addressing imminent dangers; it may well have been the growing regard of positivism and behaviorism as safeguards against utopia or irrational political impulses that could lead to a nuclear holocaust. In one form or another, these sentiments were reflected in the words of the American historian and diplomat George F. Kennan, who saw human rights as antithetical to the national interest. “National sovereignty,” he flatly asserted, “[does] not represent the moral impulses that individuals in society may experience” (Kennan 1985–6:206).

Circa 1968

By the late 1960s, the world was gradually changing in ways that had growing impact on international institutions and legal human rights documents. The composition of the UN membership began to change with the admission of newly independent states as a result of decolonization, and the subsequent UN adoption in 1966 of two major international covenants on human rights – the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – with each covenant stipulating the right to self-determination in its first article. Debating these covenants, legal scholarship was split between defenders of the concept of civil and political rights, on the one hand, and advocates of socioeconomic rights, on the other hand. Western countries and their allies privileged the Covenant of Civil and Political Rights for reasons of justiciability, while the postcolonial world and communist states emphasized the Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural rights – with the understanding that this document was less enforceable, given the level of poverty within the developing world (Thakur 1982). Armed with civil, political, and economic advantages, it was the West, animated by anticommunism, that largely shaped the legal discourse of rights during the Cold War.

Notwithstanding occasional efforts to consider the role of human rights in foreign policy by scholars on the left such as Philip Green (1966), Noam Chomsky (1969), Joyce and Gabriel Kolko (1972), and Richard Falk (1983), and by leading realist scholar Hans Morgenthau (1979), the field of international studies was still lagging behind with respect to human rights, focusing on the nuclear arms race, geopolitics, and the bipolar structure of the international system. Nevertheless, many scholars in the social sciences and humanities grew disillusioned with the Cold War hegemonic claims of contending superpowers, each invoking human rights to serve its interest. Political upheavals in the 1960s intensified that disenchantment, and opened the doors of academia to new disciplinary inquiries, which illuminated the grievances of politically or economically disenfranchised peoples.

While the language of rights was only emerging in the late 1970s and beyond, the quest for social justice for marginalized groups moved to the front burner of the progressive agenda in academic settings. The scholarship on social movements, including the women’s (Friedan 1963) and gay rights (Adam 1995) movements, the demands of the national liberation movements in former colonies (Fanon 1963), and ecological groups (Marcuse 1968), made slow yet steady inroads in academia. In the American Political Science Association, the Caucus for a New Political Science was established in 1968, providing a progressive alternative to allegedly “value-free” research. Drawing on mounting opposition to the Vietnam War, the Caucus emerged as a formidable alternative forum to the political science mainstream. It is worth remembering in that context that demands for group rights by social movements impacted the UN General Assembly, which adopted the International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1963, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1979.

Globalization

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the progress of globalization, a fourth milestone in the journey of the field, human rights gained new international currency, spreading further beyond legal scholarship and journalism toward broader fields of academic research. While legal standards continued to be an important anchor for human rights scholarship, human rights-oriented research on subjects ranging from transitions to democracy, nation building, poverty, humanitarian intervention, and war prevention began to draw attention from different academic disciplines. Many scholars in the social sciences and the humanities were now seeking a new vision of multiracial social justice, a universalist ideology which would not unapologetically espouse either the free market or the alleged universal socialism championed by the defunct Soviet Empire. In a post–Cold War ideological vacuum, human rights were a largely untapped wellspring from which new internationalist worldviews could be drawn.

The end of the Cold War, coupled with the mushrooming of nongovernmental human rights organizations, stimulated a dramatic expansion of human rights scholarship. These developments led to the birth of a new international human rights regime, which found manifold grassroots expressions within civil societies, beyond the corridors of institutional power (Keck and Sikkink 1998). These social trends also carved new academic multidisciplinary spaces for human rights discourse. One result of these changes was the 2001 inauguration of the Human Rights Section of the American Political Science Association, soon to be followed by the establishment of similar sections in the International Studies Association, American Sociological Association, and other professional academic organizations.

As postcolonial, gender, political identity, environmental, and development discourses were taking roots within academic curricula, human rights concerns became more fragmented, as the field became more interdisciplinary. The end of the Cold War and the new focus on globalization only intensified that fragmentation, highlighting the need for a more comprehensive approach. Clearly, efforts to integrate disparate struggles for human rights across time and space required greater attention to historical research and interpretation. As human rights campaigns were expanding from West to East, and now to the “Global South,” more historical narratives began to appear to answer this demand. The following section examines this growing role of history in the literature of human rights.

The Role of History in the Human Rights Literature

Since the 1960s, there have been a number of important historical studies of human rights. Even though no encompassing history of human rights was yet to be found in the late twentieth century, many important historical human rights studies had already appeared. Overall, historical accounts have tended to be specific to epoch, region, or theme.

Epoch-specific accounts from the eighteenth to the twentieth century generally emphasized the language of emancipation or social justice, and seldom that of rights. Thus Robert R. Palmer (1959–64) described with great eloquence the various achievements of struggles for justice during the democratic revolutions of the Enlightenment; Lynn Hunt (2007) explored in depth the human rights impact of the French Revolution; Eric Hobsbawm (1962, 1975, 1987) authored masterful accounts of pivotal battles for justice in 1830, 1848, and 1875. Other scholarship described and analyzed the campaigns by organized labor for political and economic justice. One nineteenth century account, which was cast in human rights terms, was T.H. Marshall’s book of collected essays, Citizenship and Social Class (1950). Marshall’s work charted the historical evolution of human rights themes, tracing the right to human security to the adoption of Habeas Corpus during the Enlightenment, and the struggle for voting rights to the first British Reform Act of 1832, and depicting the institutionalization of welfare rights in Europe during the second half of the twentieth century. With an introductory overview of earlier periods, Paul Gordon Lauren (2003) offered an unprecedented account of the evolution of human rights struggle during the twentieth century.

Regional or country-specific accounts of the history of human rights violations usually recount suffering under colonialism, the fight for independence, or efforts to govern following independence. For example, Adam Hochschild (1998) offered a gripping historical depiction of the human rights violations committed under King Leopold during the 1870s in the Congo. Other contributions include Katerina Dalacoura (2003) in her exploration of the twentieth century’s tension between Islam, liberalism and human rights, Edward Cleary (1997), who told the history of the emergence of human rights campaigns in response to military repression throughout Latin America in the 1970s, and Marina Svensson (2002), who detailed the history of twentieth century China, emphasizing the slow, yet persistent, penetration of human rights into Chinese political discourse.

Theme-specific histories of human rights or stories of social emancipation began to appear in growing numbers after 1968. Sheila Rowbotham (1973) illuminated the story of women’s roles in popular movements from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, investigating their struggles for universal suffrage, birth control, abortion, and equality in the workforce. Beginning with the history of homosexuality from ancient times, Vern L. Bullough (1979) explored the contemporary criminalization of homosexuality, the birth of the gay liberation movement, and the battle for same-sex rights in the twentieth century. David Brion Davis (2006) provided a compelling history of slavery, including the various slave revolts and abolitionist movements in the United States and Great Britain. A more recent contribution is from Kevin Bales (2004), who chronicles the new incarnation of this ancient scourge by linking African slavery to human trafficking and modern-day slavery. In his thorough account of the practice of torture throughout European history, Brian Innes (1998) concluded with a study of current anti-torture movements. Narrating the history of genocide during the twentieth century, Samantha Power (2002) sought to explain US leaders’ unwillingness to intervene and to halt horrors committed against Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Iraqi Kurds, Rwandan Tutsis, and Bosnians. In addition, Eric Weitz (2003) connects the phenomenon of genocide to the racist and nationalist ideologies that compel such brutality. Finally, William Rubinstein (2004) provides an excellent survey by tracing genocides across historical epochs, beginning in premodern times.

Overall, despite a significant body of enriching historical scholarship, it remains the case that both history and historiography have been widely overlooked, not only in the burgeoning human rights academic field, but also in most disciplines within the social sciences. What accounts for that neglect? How can we reclaim history as a means for progressive social transformation? The following section addresses these questions, highlighting the contribution of critical theory as a useful method of historical inquiry for the field of human rights and beyond.

Reclaiming History as a Means for Progressive Social Transformation

Historical Approaches

Until the Cold War, the study of international relations had been grounded in efforts to integrate political theory and history. As ideological confrontation heightened during the Cold War, history became more descriptive, formalistic, and divorced from political theory, or from any normative or political purpose, prompting leading intellectual and historian E.H. Carr (1961) to denounce his British colleagues’ historical work as politically irrelevant. Had Carr made the same accusation about social or political scientists, it would have had an equally powerful element of truth.

With the end of the Cold War, the advance of globalization, the war on terror, and the current meltdown of the global economy, the past 20 years have sent a succession of electric shocks through the nervous system of the international order. The sense of being buffeted by unpredictable events stimulated new efforts to comprehend the direction of history, or, alternatively, to assert its timeless truths. If history is back, how should we approach it in the field of human rights and beyond?

At one end of the spectrum, history, in its empirical expression, is seen as a narrative of chronological facts. In the world of realists, power, drawn from the realm of experience, is privileged over morality as the ultimate driving force of history. At the other end of the spectrum, in its ideational iteration, history is viewed as a sequence of juxtaposed normative worldviews. In the Kantian world, the actualizations of the moral categorical imperative represent in different time and space, signs of progress, and indicators that history is moving toward greater freedom. Other historical approaches lie somewhere in the middle, including historical materialism, Frankfurt School critical theory, poststructuralism (or postpositivism), and social constructivism. Let us begin with the latter, which has gained a prominent position within the mainstream study of world politics.

With the spread of informational technologies, nongovernmental organizations, and international governmental organizations, the realm of communication has become central to explaining the development of international human rights. In that context, social constructivism has been seen as a congenial framework for capturing the institutionalization of human rights norms, and has been widely adopted in human rights studies (Donnelly 1999; Stammers 1999). Social constructivism is an offshoot of, and arguably an improvement over, structural realism, which has focused on changes within the international system. This approach does not, however, shed light on what qualitative changes, institutional or otherwise, may be salutary for human rights.

By focusing on the reification of norms within institutions, social constructivism tends to be trapped in a static limbo within the closed walls of institutional networks. When norms are instrumentalized, materialized, and self-generated, it is unclear what makes history move forward or even backward. While institutional dynamics are an important aspect of social relations, they may also be inbred and sclerotic, failing to recognize the plight of those who fall below the radar of recognized institutions.

Other theoretical perspectives oscillate sharply back and forth between these two ideational and empirical poles. Searching for ways to unveil the discrepancy between norms (i.e., the rhetoric of rights) and actions (e.g., power politics) may offer more dynamic narratives of historical changes. It is worth noting that poststructuralism, along with social constructivism, has been favored in human rights disciplines over the more economic approaches associated with historical materialism, or even the less economic orthodox adaptation of historical dialectic as understood by the Frankfurt School. The relative neglect of these historical approaches may well be due to the overall marginalization of left-leaning approaches in the context of the Cold War.

In brief, historical materialism views politically conscious agents of history as instruments of change, and the contradictions of a given economic system as opportunities for social transformation. Within that tradition, some scholars have focused on the systemic nature of the international economy, others on competing institutional dynamics that lead to economic crises (Wallerstein 1974–89; Galtung 1969), and others on the vibrancy (or lethargy) of civil society as a barometer of social change (Thompson 1966). Drawing on the Marxist conception of historical materialism, scholars loyal to the Frankfurt School tradition have focused on a dialectic approach, in which individual ideas and actions represent the main engines of social transformation (Bronner 2004). They propose to revive critical thinking by unveiling the discrepancy that exists between theory and practice – a task which is a launching pad for change. Post-structuralism tends to elevate local narratives, as they confront the prevailing structure of ideology and power; such clashes are viewed as significant moments for social change (Douzinas 2000). Yet that approach to history is rightly seen, from a critical theory approach à la Frankfurt School, as random, genealogic, or cyclical, as all forms of local struggle (just or unjust) are ultimately corrupted when they are institutionalized as power. If all future human rights endeavors inexorably yield to the outcome of political corruption, then why should one challenge any particular exclusionary ideology or corrupted power structure?

The Purpose of History

Just as the earth orbits the sun, history is driven by logic rules of its own, in the sense that it has a life beyond people’s dreams and actions, beyond people’s comprehension and awareness. History is a realm, sui generis, in which institutional dynamics, wars, and economic forces interact in the absence of autonomous human beings. Many historical accounts, perhaps most famously Tolstoy’s War and Peace, reflect that position. And yet history is more than that. Were it utterly beyond human intervention, history would be merely the work of an invisible hand, the whims of the gods of war, or the will of Providence. The intellectual has a responsibility to intervene, first by understanding geopolitical, institutional, or economic interests; then by unearthing contradictions between facts and norms; next, by identifying the possibilities for narrowing these gaps; and finally by applying that knowledge toward the realization of a vision of the common good.

Envisioning the future realization of universal rights may be another utopian project in a dystopian age, and yet it is perhaps especially relevant in these times to learn from past lessons, as we seek effective ways to develop human rights opportunities and shape the future. The task of the intellectual is incomplete if she remains a mere narrator of actions or changes. For those who seek to escape the theoretical confines of realism, constructivism, or poststructuralism, and to base scholarship on the search for human progress, a few guidelines are sketched out here – a toolkit of questions useful for the student or the scholar seeking to reconcile the “is” and the “ought” in seeking to advance human rights. First, why must we understand the nature of exclusion or oppression? Second, for whom should we change history? Third, why should we assign a moral and universal purpose to history? Fourth, how can we avoid making tragic mistakes in the name of progressive change? Fifth, why is a historical dialectic approach relevant for a history of human rights? Sixth, what are the roles of interdisciplinary and multilevel analyses?

Why Must We Understand the Nature of Exclusion or Oppression?

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” the critical theorist Walter Benjamin (1968) reminds us. Oppression and emancipation are closely intertwined, requiring scholars of human rights to understand how the nature and extent of power politics or corporate economic interests, hiding behind the veneer of civilization, shape different forms of struggles for human rights. As such, civil, religious, and economic oppression of most people during the age of Absolutism galvanized revolutionary forces for civil rights, religious freedom and property rights during the Enlightenment. At the same time, economic disenfranchisement and political discrimination during the Enlightenment age invited struggle for political rights and economic equality during the industrial age. Finally, the repression of minorities by states or colonial forces during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries fomented yearnings for self-determination.

The presence of barbarism does not imply that people always react with struggle against it. Social and economic conditions have to be ripe. When they are, the victims of one generation can become the agents of change (or the vengeful oppressors) of the next generation. In all circumstances, however, the human rights scholar needs to ask if a given nation or people has reached a level of political consciousness sufficient for pursuing their own emancipation, whether fear of a tyrannical regime precludes all forms of human rights dissent, as in George Orwell’s masterful dystopia of 1984 (1949), or whether political consciousness has been subsumed by the illusion of a commodified notion of freedom, so powerfully analyzed in Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964).

For Whom Should We Change History?

That human rights activists seek to improve the lot of the oppressed, the less fortunate and the marginalized has consequences for how we engage history. If we do not keep in mind what we wish to see changed, we lack guidance in choosing what to search for in history. In The Second Sex (1953), Simone de Beauvoir asked scholars to unearth women’s participation in history as a way to reclaim women as active agents of politics. In Bury the Chains (2005), Adam Hochschild recounts the history of the abolition of slavery to show how past strategies can inform future campaigns of emancipation. Human rights history, in short, is history from the vantage point not of the victors but of the oppressed and those who join their struggle for emancipation. Yet advancing the rights of victims is not always such an easy proposition, as one may inadvertently promote the rights of some at the expense of others. As such, history needs to be entrusted with a moral and universal purpose.

Why Should We Assign a Moral and Universal Purpose to History?

In his book Their Morals and Ours (1938/1973), Leon Trotsky wrote: “History has different yardsticks for the cruelty of the Northerners and the cruelty of the Southerners in the [American] civil war. A slave-owner who through cunning and violence shackles a slave in chains, and a slave who through cunning and violence breaks the chains […] are not equal before a court or Morality.” Assuming for a moment that there are different criteria for judging the violence of the oppressors and the oppressed, surely the oppressed cannot be justified in moving from victory to revenge, thereby continuing the vicious cycle of oppression. In his Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon (1963) reminded us that oppressed people during the decolonization process had internalized the forces of domination and brutality, and reproduced them when they achieved positions of power. While Fanon does not provide us with a solution for transcending this pernicious cycle, he correctly warned his readers that nationalism, as empowering as it may well be, is not a political program, or a historical end.

This implies that not all purposes assigned to history are supportive of human rights. Realists contend that the desire for power and self-aggrandizement is the driving engine of history. “The record of truth revealed by experience,” wrote Lord Acton, “is eminently practical, as an instrument of action and power that goes to making the future” (Acton 1964:25–6). Yet Acton, with other realists, warned that great powers tend to plant the seeds of their own demise; his adage contending that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” is an unforgettable formulation of that danger. In this respect, the regimes of Louis XVI, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Hitler followed Acton’s historical insights. From this realist (and also in an odd way poststructuralist) perspective, history is cyclical, making all achievements – progressive or otherwise – ephemeral, soon to be defeated by the reinstitution of the struggle of power and order.

If nationalism and power politics have to be rejected, as historical ends, if we are to avoid circularity, or even regression, what ends need to be embraced as the purpose of history? Here, one powerful indication of historical progress is the fact that visions of which humans deserve rights have progressively widened toward the inclusion of all humanity. Moreover, despite continuing controversy over the substance of human rights, the UDHR provides a powerful set of standards. To summarize the central implications: it is an unacceptable assault upon a person’s dignity to be prevented from speaking one’s mind, to be barred from participating in political life, to be forced by hunger to beg for food, or to be subjected to torture or the threat of death. While the Declaration is not a blueprint for political action, it does provide a vision of the future and a basis for measuring our progress.

What Mistakes Should We Avoid in the Name of Progressive Change?

Many liberals have argued, with great optimism, that the progress of history is linear. Immanuel Kant and Thomas Paine, among others, saw the Enlightenment’s ideals in terms of progress from tyranny to cosmopolitan rights. With the spread of social evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century, Auguste Comte’s conception of history was divided into the theological, the metaphysical, and the positivist stage brought about by modern science. With Comte, Herbert Spencer, and other social Darwinists, linear views of progress have shaped the underlying idea that history is moving from savagery and ignorance toward prosperity and peace. In the 1960s, these ideas resurfaced in the form of democratization theory (Lipset 1960), and more recently gained popularity in the work of Francis Fukuyama (1992). The problem with these perspectives on change is that they adopt a one-sequence strategy for social transformation superficially modeled after the Western world, while overlooking the fact that transitions from feudalism to capitalism and democracy in the West were accompanied by expansion, colonialism, and neocolonialism, and included the destruction, enslavement, or exploitation of masses of humans.

Ironically, we can find some overlap between some modernization theories and orthodox Marxism, insofar as the latter approach privileges economic advancement and industrialization, as a necessary stage toward political emancipation. While some Orthodox Marxists (Bernstein 1961; Kautsky 1983) highlighted the importance of reform in the economic stage theory as a stepstone toward socialist freedom, the actual process of modernizing and industrializing economically backward societies in the avowedly socialist states of Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China was accompanied by severe forms of repression, purges and mass executions. The cost of progress in achieving democracy under capitalism or justice under communism was far too high, suggesting that the notion of a linear sequence of events, namely security, then industrialization, then political freedom, may be undermining the very goal of sustained progress.

Unfortunately, the UDHR and other international human rights covenants do not provide clear guidelines for reconciling means and ends. Yet human rights ideals have to be used as a normative framework for assessing both the acceptability and the long-term viability of any proposed solution for advancing human rights. One can imagine forging a human rights agenda which integrates the different solutions for achieving human rights and peace, based on combined efforts to integrate different families of rights – security, political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights – in ways that are tailored to different stages of social transition. Amartya Sen understood the importance of integrating these various families of rights at various stages of development (1999); similar concerns should be equally applicable in war-torn societies aspiring to peace and human rights.

Why Is a Historic Dialectic Approach Relevant for a History of Human Rights?

A dialectic approach permeated by a comprehensive approach to human rights is the most illuminating path to address dilemmas over the transition from poverty to prosperity, or from tyranny. Envisioning a moral purpose to history does not imply the absence of setbacks. Indeed, history shows how major strides in human rights were followed by severe defeats. This does not mean that one step forward is neutralized by one step backward, as in the myth of Sisyphus. Despite long histories of barbarism and ruthless power, human rights struggle survived the tests and contradictions of history, learning from setbacks, and providing an evolving corpus of shared conceptions of universal human rights that transcend class, ethnic, and gender distinctions. Indeed, despite various episodes of regression, the history of human rights shows a clear dimension of progress: slavery has been abolished (even if intolerable vestiges remain), women in most of the world have been granted the right to vote, and living standards have risen for most of the world’s inhabitants.

Many have criticized the historical dialectic, for its predetermined narrative and its forgone political conclusions (i.e., Hegel’s triumph of the Prussian state or Marx’s classless society). What is often misunderstood is that a dialectic approach is not a meandering process driven by contradictions, articulated by a thesis–antithesis–synthesis (aufhebung) process, sacrificing people as lambs at the altars of the gods of history in order to reach the awaited apex of morality at the end of time. On the contrary, while assigning a purpose to the dialectic is critical for avoiding the curse of historical circularity, the dialectic, as the Frankfurt School understands it, keeps readjusting the narrative of freedom to new hopes or to different times and circumstances. Thus understood, history is a dialectic process of many progressive ends. It permits people to pause, reflect on their situation and reorient history toward different directions.

Insofar as self-conscious people shape history, history is not deterministic. It is unpredictable, as conscious actors can transcend pathological historical repetitions of conflicts and envisioned progress not just as an instrumental notion of freedom, but as the substantive actualization of human rights. While history is transformed through a collision between matter and ideas, it remains formalistic unless it promotes universal progress. Sketching ways to move forward enables us to actualize a higher form of freedom, beyond the physical realm, so as not to fall prey and victim to the clockwork mechanism of time or the greed for power. The Frankfurt School (Horkheimer 1946; Habermas 1984) injected a Kantian, categorical imperative barometer into the heart of the unfolding dialectic mechanism – to assess whether moral intentions had been met in the process of actualization, to gauge the price of liberty both in terms of means and ends. While Kant’s a priori formulation of universal ethics does not provide a satisfying way to understand history, its ethics continues to serve us as a powerful antidote to excesses of power and historical backlashes. After all, as Kant reminds us: one cannot build peace on the vast graveyard of humanity.

What Are the Roles of Interdisciplinary and Multilevel Analyses?

History should be approached through multiple levels and disciplines. Looking down from a higher altitude, we can understand the broad trajectories of human rights across centuries, trajectories in which barbarism and human rights have been interspersed as if in a deadly cosmic contest. From a terrestrial plane, we can focus our social inquiry into the fate of state and/or civil societies in which violations and struggles occurred (Gramsci 1971); from a psychological outlook, we can apprehend the psychological life of the collective in its political behavior, its desires for revenge, or its hopes for a better future (Fromm 1947).

Because one may overlook changes that occur on one plane but not another, there is a need to approach human rights inquiries on more than one level of analysis. As such, international systemic analysis should be checked against historical local narratives, and vice versa. In other words, we must make links, from subterranean seismic forces, to social, economic and institutional shifts, to lessons drawn from broad social history, if we seek to gain a richer understanding of the direction of human rights progress. Reclaiming a historical approach of that sort, one committed to theoretical rigor and creativity, is a challenge from which the intellectual engagé should not shy away.

While critical theory originally fought against “economism,” which had been treated in isolation from other political spheres, it prefers combined interdisciplinary perspectives, drawn from political economy, sociology, cultural theory, art, philosophy, anthropology, and history (Bronner 2002). At the same time, it overcomes the endemic fragmentation that exists in many academic disciplines, as it argues for a holistic approach in its search for the manifold aspiration of emancipation. The task for the critical theorist is to connect these various trends, and to develop a comprehensive approach committed to human rights.

In sum, the Frankfurt School approach offers a rich response to the various questions enumerated above. It calls for a review of how specific forms of oppression have generated human rights struggle at different stages, why human rights rebellions have lagged, or why the oppressed have remained silent. It stays on the side of the unfortunate and the marginalized insofar as they seek changes guided by a universal purpose. It rejects the cost of progress made under the conditions of unfettered capitalism, or totalitarianism – communism – and as such abides by Kantian ethics to adjudicate whether normative intent and practical actions are synchronized. It recognizes the importance of a historical dialectic, not merely because institutional contradictions create the conditions for social change (and vice versa), but also because progressive social movements have to be readjusted to alleviate the painful cost of progress. It engages various disciplines in order to understand the complexity of oppression and opportunities under its emancipatory guidelines. It is a multilevel and multidisciplinary dialectal approach committed to social progress, and avoids the pitfalls both of relativism or a predetermined telos.

My History of Human Rights (Ishay 2008) was an effort to reclaim this invaluable progressive theoretical and historical tradition, moving along a dialectical path beyond the contradictions of time and space, and committed to showing the possibilities of progress. It is a dialectical reading of human rights based on thematic human rights changes, carried by one generation of human rights actors to another. It attempts to construct a broad historical narrative, moving from ancient times to the contemporary era, recounting the move from human rights violations to social struggle, and from social struggle to the institutionalization of rights. To the historian or scholar in human rights, interested in pursuing such a critical theoretical approach, the following section proposes a definition of human rights informed by history, and six historical controversies that advanced the human rights debate.

Definition of Human Rights and Historical Controversies

Human rights are rights held by individuals simply because they are part of the human species. They are rights shared equally by everyone regardless of sex, race, nationality, and economic background. They are universal in content. Conflicting political traditions, across the centuries, have elaborated different components to human rights, or differed over which elements had priority. In our day, the manifold meanings of human rights reflect the process of historical continuity and change that helped shape their present substance, and helped form the 1948 UDHR. René Cassin, the main drafter of the document, outlined the central tenets of human rights, comparing it to the portico of a temple.

Drawing on the battle cry of the French Revolution, Cassin identified the four pillars of the declaration as “dignity, liberty, equality, and brotherhood.” The 27 articles of the Declaration were divided into these four pillars, with the roof of the portico (articles 28–30) stipulating the conditions in which the rights of individuals could be realized within society and the state. Each of these four pillars represents major historical milestones. The first pillar stands for human dignity shared by all individuals regardless of their religion, creed, ethnicity, religion, or sex (covered in the first two articles of the Declaration); the second pillar, specified in articles 3–19 of the Declaration, invokes the first generation of civil liberties and other liberal rights fought for during the Enlightenment; the third pillar, delineated in articles 20–26, addresses the second generation of rights, i.e., related to political, social and economic equity championed during the era of the industrial revolution; the fourth pillar (articles 27–28) focuses on the third generation of rights associated with communal and national solidarity, as advocated during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century and throughout the postcolonial era. In a sense, the sequence of the articles corresponds to the historical appearance of changing visions of universal rights.

To elaborate briefly on the correspondence between these four clusters of rights and the historical chronology of emergent visions (or generations) of human rights, one can trace the concept of “dignity” to some of the teachings of both monotheistic and non-monotheistic religions; the ascension of (civil) “liberty” arguments can be identified primarily with the Enlightenment legacy; the fight for greater economic and political “equality” with the socialist and labor movement of the industrial revolution; and “fraternity” with the notions of group and cultural rights identified with anti-imperialist movements in nineteenth century Europe and within the twentieth century colonized world.

Inspired by Cassin, what follows is a brief consideration of critical historical periods, each of which can be associated with significant controversies regarding human rights. These controversies are of more than merely historical interest; they underlie and animate contemporary political battles over human rights. They are reviewed here to illustrate why human rights scholars need to place their research agendas, policy analyses, and assessments of future possibilities in historical context. At worst, historical forays into human rights issues risk “reinventing the wheel.” Beyond that, it is fair to say that the potential for new scholarly contributions to build on centuries of argument and struggle depends on the depth of one’s historical knowledge and the theoretical tool for interpreting it.

The first human rights controversy concerns the debate over the origins of human rights. Did they emerge out of humanity’s great religions and ancient secular traditions? Or did human rights arise from a fundamental challenge to the narrow worldviews embraced by those traditions? The second controversy is over the validity of the claim that our modern conception of rights, wherever in the world it may be voiced, is predominantly European in origin. The third controversy concerns the often overlooked socialist contribution to human rights – a contribution obscured by Stalinism and Maoism. The fourth controversy, over the right to self-determination, originally invoked against imperialism, continues to provoke conflicts between opposed groups fighting for sovereignty over the same territories. The fifth controversy, finally, considers whether globalization, in its multifaceted economic and cultural forms, is a boon or a threat from a human rights perspective. This also deals with the extent to which cultural and security rights, taken in isolation, can override the internationalist intent of human rights.

The Controversy over the Origins of Human Rights

When embarking on a historical investigation of the origins of human rights, the first question one confronts is: where does that history begin? It is a politically charged question, as difficult to answer as the one addressing the end or purpose of history. The question of the end of history has always implied the triumph of one particular worldview over another. Thus Hegel’s vision of history, ending with the birth of the Prussian state, celebrated the superiority of German liberal and cultural views of his time over those of others. Karl Marx’s prediction that history would end with the withering away of the state and the birth of a classless society emerged from a deepening struggle against the abuses of early industrialization, and Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the end of history exemplified liberal euphoria in the immediate aftermath of Soviet collapse.

Similarly, locating the beginning of a history tends to privilege a particular worldview; a history of human rights can be perceived as a way either to defend a specific status quo or value system against possible challengers, or to legitimize the claims of neglected agents of history. It is in this context that one can understand the fight between religious creationists and evolutionary Darwinists in American schools, and the clash between some defenders of the Western canon on the one hand, and some advocates of African and “Third World” studies on the other. Identifying the origins of human rights will inescapably invite a similar debate. For example, skeptics over the achievements of Western civilization are correct to point out that current notions of morality cannot be associated solely with European history (Manglapus 1978).

Modern ethics is in fact indebted to a worldwide spectrum of both secular and religious traditions. Thus the concept of proportionate punishment and justice was first professed by the Hammurabi Code of ancient Babylon; the Hebrew Bible celebrates the sanctity of life and reciprocal entitlements; the Hindu and Buddhist religions offered the earliest defense of the ecosystem; Confucianism promoted widespread education; the ancient Greeks and Romans endorsed natural laws and the capacity of every individual to reason; Christianity and Islam encouraged human solidarity, just as both considered the problem of moral conduct in wartime.

Yet the idea that religion is at the source of our current human rights tradition remains contested by scholars, who regard religious edicts and commandments as the very antithesis of rights (Donnelly 1989:50). Often presented as injunctions against proscribed behaviors, many religious invocations of moral duties, however, would correspond closely to later secular conceptions of rights (Maritain 1949). For example, the biblical injunction “thou shall not kill” implies the right to secure one’s life, just as “thou shall not steal” implies a right to property.

At the same time, while all religions and secular traditions prior to the Enlightenment may have shared basic views of a common good, no ancient religious or secular belief system regarded all individuals as equal. From Hammurabi’s Codes, to the New Testament, to the Koran, one can identify a common disdain toward indentured servants (or slaves), women, and homosexuals – as all were excluded from equal social benefits. While emphasizing a universal moral embrace, all great civilizations have thus tended to rationalize unequal entitlements for the weak or the “inferior.” Yet, while such commonalities are noteworthy, they should not overshadow one of history’s most consequential realities: it has been the influence of the West that has prevailed, including that of Western conceptions of universal rights.

The Controversy over the Liberal Legacy and the Enlightenment

If the civilizations and ethical contributions of China, India, and the Muslim world towered over those of medieval Europe, it is equally true that the legacy of the European Enlightenment supersedes other influences on our current understanding of human rights. The necessary conditions for the Enlightenment, which combined to bring an end to the Middle Ages of Europe, included the scientific revolution, the rise of mercantilism, the launching of maritime explorations of the globe, the consolidation of the nation-state, and the emergence of a middle class. These developments stimulated the expansion of Western power, even as they created propitious circumstances for the development of modern conceptions of human rights. They ultimately shattered feudalism and delegitimized appeals by kings to divine right.

As Europe was plagued by religious wars pitting Catholics against Protestants in a struggle to redefine religious and political structures, human rights visionaries like Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, Emmerich de Vattel, and René Descartes constructed a new secular language, affirming a common humanity that transcended religious sectarianism. Over the next two centuries, revolutionaries in England, America, and France would use a similar discourse to fight aristocratic privileges or colonial authority, and to reorganize their societies based on human rights principles. Armed with the scientific confidence of their era, they struggled for the right to life (Beccaria 1764/1955:10–11, 39–44, 66–71), for freedom of religion and opinion (Locke 1689), and for property rights (Winstanley 1649), and ultimately broke the grip of monarchical regimes.

Notwithstanding the incontestable debt of modern conceptions of human rights to the European Enlightenment, the positive legacy of that era remains widely contested. Many rightly argue that the Enlightenment did not fulfill its universal human rights promises. In the early nineteenth century, slavery continued in the European colonies and in America. Throughout the European dominated world (with the brief exception of revolutionary France), women failed to achieve equal rights with men (de Gouges 1790), propertyless men were denied the right to vote and other political rights, children’s rights continued to be usurped, and the right to sexual preference was not even considered. Given those shortcomings, critics have argued that the Enlightenment legacy of human rights represented little more than an imperialist masquerade, designed to bend the rest of the world to its will under the pretense of universality (Foucault 1984; Ishay 1995a).

While the development of capitalism in Europe contributed to the circumstances necessary for the development of a secular and universal language of human rights, the early European liberal agenda inadvertently taught that very language to its challengers. Thus the international language of power and the language of resistance were simultaneously born in the cradle of the European Enlightenment. The Enlightenment thinkers not only invented the language of human rights discourse, the arguments they launched over the nature of human rights continue to preoccupy us today.

Now as then, we find ourselves pondering the role of the state – as both the guardian of basic rights and as the behemoth against which one’s rights need to be defended. Both during the Enlightenment and today, this dual allegiance to one’s state and to universal human rights has contributed to the perpetuation of a double standard of moral behavior, in which various appeals to human rights obligations remain subordinated to the “the national interest.” Just as the celebrated Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789) was followed by Napoleon’s realpolitik during his reign over the European Continental System, Fukuyama’s end of history vision predicated on liberal rights has yielded to post–September 11 claims that civil liberties must yield to the need for national security.

In addition, we are still embroiled in Enlightenment debates over whether a laissez-faire approach to economic activity is the best way to promote democratic institutions and global peace, as such early advocates as Immanuel Kant (1795) and Thomas Paine (1791) have been echoed more than two centuries later by political thinkers such as Michael Doyle (1986). Further, we remain engaged in the Enlightenment argument over when and how one may justly wage war (Grotius 1925). The current forms of these debates, one should add, are not merely a contemporary variant of the early liberal tradition, but have been modified and enriched by the socialist contribution.

The Controversy over the Socialist Contribution and the Industrial Age

The nineteenth century industrial revolution and the growth of the labor movement opened the gates of freedom to previously marginalized individuals who challenged the classical liberal economic conception of social justice (Owen 1816/1992; Marx 1843/1975; Bebel 1883). Yet, despite the important socialist contribution to the human rights discourse, the human rights legacy of the socialist – and especially the Marxist – tradition is today widely dismissed. Bearing in mind the atrocities that have been committed by communist regimes in the name of human rights, the historical record still needs to show that the struggle for universal suffrage, social justice, and worker’s rights – principles endorsed in the UDHR (articles 18–21) and by the two main 1966 international covenants on human rights – were strongly influenced by socialist thought.

Indeed, the Chartists in England (Chartism 1838) – early socialist precursors – and later the European labor parties played a large role in the campaign for voting and social rights (Lasalle 1862/1992). Disenfranchised from the political process, propertyless workers realized that without a political voice, they would not be able to address the widening economic gap within some societies between themselves and the rising industrial capitalists (Proudhon 1840/1994). In other words, the historical struggle for universal suffrage was launched and largely waged by the socialist movement. As Marx put it in the New York Daily Tribune of 1850: “the carrying of universal suffrage in England [is] a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honored with that name on the Continent” (Marx 1977).

While liberals retained their preoccupation with liberty, Chartists and socialists focused on the troubling possibility that economic inequity could make liberty a hollow concept – a belief that resonated powerfully with the bourgeoning class of urban working men and women. Highlighting this inconsistency, the French socialist Louis Blanc declared:

But the poor man, you say, has the right to better his position? So! And what difference does it make, if he has not the power to do so? What does the right to be cured matter to a sick man whom no one is curing? Right considered abstractly is the mirage that has kept the people in abused condition since 1789 […] Let us say it then for once and for all: freedom consists, not only in the RIGHTS that have been accorded, but also in the power given men to develop and exercise their faculties, under the reign of justice and the safeguard of law. (1848/1992:235)

In this sense, socialists became legitimate heirs of the Enlightenment, applying the universal promises of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” to the political realities of the nineteenth century.

From the nineteenth century onward, radical and reformist socialists alike called for redefining the liberal agenda to include increased economic equity, the right to trade unions, child welfare, universal suffrage, the restriction of the workday, the right to education, and other social welfare rights. Most of these principles were encapsulated in the UN Covenant on Social, Cultural and Economic Rights. By then, these key elements of the original socialist platform had long since been embraced as mainstream tenets of liberalism. So long as arguments are framed in terms of universal rights, liberals and socialists have thus shared a key premise, that is, universalism that could provide a basis for reasoned debate. In that sense, both visions of rights have often been allied in opposition to the recurrent challenge posed by adherents of cultural and national relativism.

The Controversy over the Right to Self-Determination and the Imperial Age

The liberal nationalist writings of Jonathan Gottlieb Fichte, Giuseppe Mazzini, John Stuart Mill, and Theodore Herzl, among other social thinkers of the nineteenth century, foreshadowed the twentieth century’s quest to codify the right to self-determination (Ishay 1995a). If generally invoked throughout nineteenth century Europe against imperial domination or ethnic oppression, the right to a homeland would become a central issue of twentieth century international affairs. Yet the gradual assertion of self-determination as an inalienable human right throughout the twentieth century was imbued with contradictions from the outset.

At the time of the ratification of the Covenant of League of the Nations (1919), advocates, such as President Woodrow Wilson, failed to foresee that imperialist and fascist leaders would invoke the notion of national rights to justify their expansionist policies, contributing to the horrors of World War II (Wilson 2007). Few recognized, despite the warnings of the Polish socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg (1909/2007), that such rights would be left far too vague in international legal documents. Indeed, article 1 of the two main human rights covenants, adopted by the UN in 1966, stipulated that “all peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic and cultural development.”

Written in such sweeping terms, that legal codification of self-determination never specified which type of political regime a newly independent state would establish. It never addressed the possibility that legitimizing one group’s national aspirations would be invoked at the expense of others and possibly create conflicts; it never resolved to what extent a prospective independent state was economically and politically viable and thereby at least potentially a truly sovereign state; and it never considered how an economically nonviable new state might be doomed to permanent economic dependency and neocolonial political subordination.

The search for appropriate standards for implementing self-determination rights started before World War I, as a nationalist tide swept Central and Eastern Europe, fragmenting the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. With the ever more defiant ascendance of nationalism and the threat of war on the eve of World War I, puncturing the universalist hopes of the second Socialist International, socialists such as Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin would reflect on how to resolve the question of self-determination, addressing the need to establish standards for legitimizing this otherwise vacuous claim (Lenin 1970). With anticolonial struggle spreading through Asia and Africa to overthrow European imperial domination in the mid-twentieth century, a new set of leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Sati’ al-Husri, and Kwame Nkrumah would emerge from the colonized world, building their claims on previous rationales and quests for self-determination (Gandhi 1990; al-Husri 1962; Nkrumah 1961). Because the right to self-determination can result in contending claims to the same disputed territory, the meaning of this right remains far from obvious and needs to be elaborated in light of historical and political precedents.

The Controversy over Globalization’s Impact on Human Rights

While it is true that the rapid economic expansion of some developing countries – notably China and India – has led to a narrowing of the overall North and South wealth gap, some countries in the South, especially in Africa, have fallen further behind. The widening economic gap in some societies has propelled anti-Western sentiments, nationalist backlashes, and war. At the same time, one can make the case that the plight of the poorest countries can be attributed not to globalization but to their exclusion from the global marketplace. More inclusive globalization – from this point of view – would not only eradicate ethnic sectarianism, but also generate new opportunities for human rights movements.

However one judges its overall benefits and adverse effects, globalization has affected people in different ways, creating a plethora of ever more specific and ever more conflicting human rights demands (Friedman and Ramonet 1999). For instance, if the fight for labor rights has been reenergized in recent years, organized labor continues to be divided internationally between workers from rich and poor countries, and domestically between the interests of those who are unionized and those who are not (Tilly 1995). Similarly, while the unprecedented ravaging of the global environment has prompted the emergence of a global ecological movement, that movement is animated by different social and economic priorities in the developed and the developing world (Saro-Wiwa 2007). The abuses suffered by a growing illegal immigrant labor force and the hardships suffered by refugees fleeing from poverty, repression, or war have led to calls for fairer immigration and refugee laws. At the same time, immigration of low-skilled workers to richer countries conflicts with the interests of unemployed and low-wage workers in the developed world, pitting two needy communities against each other (Sassen 2000).

Undoubtedly these conflicts over rights have intensified cultural and regional differences. Indeed, if globalization erodes national distinctions, creating a more integrated world, as internationalists from liberal or socialist persuasions have hoped (in different ways), efforts to protect national patrimonies against waves of immigrants, foreign imports, or the overall homogenization of the world into universal consumerism have revived the appeal of cultural rights. Whereas staunch internationalists fear a world of competing cultures, which would favor the triumph of belligerent fundamentalists at the expense of women and other disenfranchised groups, cultural rights proponents worry that tendentious “universal” moral perspectives of the most powerful players will prevail over the cultural values of subordinated nations.

Can cultural relative and security concerns override internationalist aspirations? That fight between internationalists and cultural relativists has intensified during the era of globalization, and has taken a tragic turn after September 11 (Muzaffar 1999; Howard-Hassmann and Donnelly 2007:404). In many resentful, economically or culturally aggrieved areas of the world, the Western maestros of globalization are seen as responsible for overlooking oppression and poverty, and must now face the inevitable “blowback.” These sentiments in turn have unleashed Western fear of the Muslim world, strengthened demagogic assertions of Western superiority, and made it politically viable to insist – at least during the George W. Bush administration – that individual rights are subordinate to national security. Torn between their internationalist aspirations and the immediate dangers of the post–September 11 world, human rights advocates have been debating the extent to which security rights can override civil and other human rights, the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention to overthrow tyrants by force, and whether globalization represents desirable interdependence or is a mask for empire.

The various schisms within the human rights community remind us of why the main drafters of the UDHR argued with such fervor for the importance of the indivisibility of human rights. By doing so, they were challenging assertions that security rights prevail over civil rights, as has been claimed in the “war against terror,” or that development rights justify civil and political repression -- as argued by some Asian political elites. In short, they were trying to reduce the prospect that specific rights could be opportunistically elaborated to advance the political agenda of this or that leader, or this or that movement, thereby undermining an all-encompassing and universal perspective on human rights.

Some Reflections on the Future of Human Rights and Directions for Research

At the time of this writing, during the year marking the sixtieth anniversary of the UDHR, the future of human rights stands at a critical juncture. If we are to draw from the lessons of history, one can envision two paths reminiscent of the post–World War I period, evoked by economic turmoil, the rise of belligerent fundamentalism and resurgent great power rivalries, and the impotence of international governance. Another path promises to avert this dark future, informed by the success of the post–World War II period: a vision of a Global New Deal, a comprehensive human rights policy, and effective international governance.

The Path toward a Dark Future

When economists agree that the closest historical parallel to the current economic meltdown is the Great Depression, we are confronted with the specter of deepening poverty, antidemocratic political movements, and growing risks of war – just as we witnessed in the period between the world wars. The economic gap between the developing and developed world may well be more daunting than the one faced by colonial powers at the time of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, and portend the erosion of support for progressive internationalist values and policies.

Where globalizing capitalism disrupts traditions and widens gaps between the rich and the rest, one alternative has been violent religious fundamentalism. September 11 made this danger unforgettable, and the durability of this threat has been demonstrated from Indonesia to Spain, to the United Kingdom, and with India’s “September 11” in Mumbai. If globalization’s predominant ideology is laissez-faire economics, then fundamentalists – who draw from religious texts the obligation to help the poor and who promise an end to decadent materialism – may grow in power.

The future is even gloomier when we consider which international institutions or governmental mechanisms are capable of redressing human rights violations and halting war. Thus far, US decline has created a sense of international instability, as the world is tested by an assertive Iran, a belligerent Russia, the rise of an authoritarian China, and a splintered Middle East. Furthermore, the incapacity of the UN has disappointed those who believed that the end of the Cold War promised progress toward global governance. Instead, we have seen the UN’s incapacity to address crimes against humanity from Bosnia to Rwanda to Darfur. Moreover, its encounter with Iraq, from the corrupt “oil for food” program of the 1990s to the ease with which al-Qaeda forced the UN to flee following the US led invasion, showed tragic weakness.

Continuing down that dark path may produce a world that warrants depictions in terms of apocalyptic imagery, such as coastlines disappearing into rising oceans, the use of mass destruction weapons, or the resurgence of totalitarianism in the developed world. Can human rights scholars and activists informed by history imagine – and help guide us toward – a different path?

The Path toward a Progressive Future

One historical lesson to be drawn from periods that inspire pessimism about humanity’s prospects is that they presage revivals of human rights visions. Hence, one should recall the generation led in the United States by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, whose determination to redirect humanity’s future after its darkest episode culminated in the post–World War II plans for economic recovery and integration, political institutions centered on the UN, and the comprehensive rationale for those advances contained in the 1948 Human Rights Declaration. All of those efforts were animated by the determination to avert a dark future that was far more imaginable and vivid than the one just depicted.

Yet despite the proclaimed universality of the UDHR, the United States and its allies never sought to fashion a global “New Deal” that would extend the same principles to the “Third World.” There, instead, the United States assisted nearly every anti-Soviet regime, no matter how repressive, and supported insurgencies against pro-Soviet regimes, no matter who was leading the fight. This path of creating enemies by ignoring suffering and fueling grievance is reminiscent of the disastrous aftermath of World War I.

In the face of the high levels of poverty, repression, and conflict afflicting so much of the developing world, it is difficult to imagine the requisite commitment of resources, combined with the construction of practical strategies – tailored to a host of distinctive cases – that could effect societal and political transformation on a regional scale. While the United States and other powerful states may lack the will and economic resources to launch a new version of the reconstruction project applied to Western Europe to the world, one can nevertheless envision the selection of a few critical areas in which economic development can rapidly impact ordinary people domestically and regionally. For instance, international efforts to establish new outposts for development, democracy, and human rights could serve as catalysts to be emulated regionally. If one could select one area for such an effort during the current economic crisis, one may well consider the West Bank and Gaza, where success could have profound benefits for the region and beyond. On a broader scale, the program of Millennium Development Goals exemplifies such a grassroots approach, aiming to reduce the most severe global poverty, while empowering ordinary people rather than political elites. Research that fleshes out viable strategies integrating economic development with the expansion of human rights is a crucial aspect of the scholarly agenda.

One cannot simply focus on economic development without taking into account a host of human rights factors (cultural, security, and political rights). The UDHR made such a commitment. If the Declaration does not provide a blueprint for policy, it does offer the most viable existing framework for addressing poverty, terrorism, and totalitarianism. That is because its comprehensive approach offers a corrective to the prevailing fragmentation of human rights.

The notion that human rights embrace some types of fundamental rights but not others is absurd. The partial human rights approach adopted in Washington during the Bush administration tolerated tragic abuses of rights and continues to fuel rage against the West. The right to security has taken precedence over civil rights; political rights have been elevated over welfare rights; and cultural or religious rights have been emphasized over universal rights.

Human rights need to confront with equal resolve the abuses associated with globalization and the danger posed by anti-Enlightenment forces. The human rights community can move beyond its current schisms and reclaim a comprehensive universal agenda that advances freedom, economic justice, and peace. Adhering to standards contained in the Universal Declaration does not mean that there should be a one-size-fits-all sequential formula privileging one set of rights ahead of another; that is, economic or political rights before security rights, or vice versa. To avert backlashes in peace efforts, for instance, it is important to establish sustainable human rights milestones (including each category of rights). Despite an abundance of scholarship on cultural relativism and universalism, too little research has focused on the changing nature of universal rights and their applications to different social and economic spaces. In other words, universalism should be understood as containing different contextual and cultural expressions, rather than in opposition to particularism or relativism.

Finally, with regard to the question of future governance, one can observe that the failure of US unilateralism in the years since 2001 has provided a powerful lesson in the limits of US power. The growing consensus in favor of more multilateral approaches predated the 2008 world financial crisis, and the gathering of the Group of Twenty in Washington following the plunge in world markets illustrated the obvious fusion of national interests with global economic cooperation. Realists like to claim that in a multipolar world, cooperation will be weak and fleeting, as great powers confront determined new challengers, and as a shifting balance of power makes alliances both more critical and more unreliable. Yet there have been fundamental changes since that view was first asserted. In the twenty-first century, the lessons of two world wars and the existence of vast nuclear arsenals makes great power war unthinkable. Moreover, the world economy is vastly more interdependent, and global problems of food supply, energy, stateless peoples, weapons proliferation, and climate change are threatening humankind as a whole. In all of those ways, old calculations of self-interest point in new directions, away from planning for major war, and toward greater efforts to develop global institutions.

While future research challenges ahead of us are real, they are not insurmountable. How can human rights research help us in transcending obstacles and improve the human plight? Human rights scholarship should keep alive the realm of imagination and utopia. One can imagine, for instance, a world where sovereignty is still alive and yet less territorial, a world in which democracy has become an irrepressible demand by citizenry in every region, a world in which shared spaces are expanding in a universal and relatively more equalizing manner, a world embracing opportunities while curtailing the nefarious effects of globalization. The next step would be to translate that vision into political strategies, and later into action.

Entrusted with a vital role, human rights studies can help sort out how other fields – political economy, security, and development – can meld into a comprehensive package. As such, human rights are committed to interdisciplinarity. Yet the field is not merely one discipline among all others, but foundational, engaged in drawing from all academic fields, and in bridging, through history, knowledge both of the world that ought to be and the world that is. With this renewed engagement, human rights scholarship is well positioned to break new frontiers for societies suffering from the impasses of war, economic malaise, and political repression.

Since World War II, humankind, with its limited steps toward advancing and reconciling the comprehensive package of human rights contained in the 1948 Declaration, has avoided great power war, raised billions of humans out of poverty, and made it increasingly unacceptable to claim that individuals from any particular race, gender, or ethnicity can be denied equal rights. That is progress enough to inspire the next scholarly efforts to advance a more enriched, programmatic vision, in the indomitable spirit of 1948.

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Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Stephen Bronner for introducing me to Critical Theory, and for inspiring me to carry on the tradition; David Goldfischer for his thoughtful review and useful suggestions; and Joel R. Pruce for his insightful comments and valuable research support.