Human Rights in Recent History: Local, National, and Transnational Perspectives

AHA Session 252
Sunday, January 6, 2013: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Chamber Ballroom I (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Bradley R. Simpson, Princeton University
Bradley R. Simpson, Princeton University

Session Abstract

Starting in the late 1960s and accelerating in subsequent decades, activists from Moscow and Prague to Rio de Janeiro and Jakarta simultaneously crafted their campaigns for a variety of causes in the language of human rights. In ways that shaped the last third of the twentieth century, the very cause of human rights became a raison d’être for many social activists.  Historians are in the process of writing new histories of human rights, and this panel seeks to capitalize on this changing historiographic moment to offer a variety of local, national, and transnational perspectives on the issue.  

The four papers proposed for this panel all tell stories that are, in the words of Frederick Cooper, “more than local and less than global.”  All four scholars show how the transnational is embedded within the national and the local--a critical methodological move in the telling of more nuanced histories of human rights.  Elizabeth Borgwardt’s paper contextualizes the strengthening of juridical human rights norms in the post-1980s-era as a legacy of the Nuremberg trials.  Her paper highlights three concepts--universal jurisdiction, crimes against humanity, and the focus on individual accountability and victimhood--in light of “reviving the Nuremberg ideal.”  Carl Bon Tempo explores the relationship between the NAACP and human rights after the 1970s.  His paper seeks to unpack a paradox of human rights politics in the U.S. where human rights often always referred to something ‘out there’ while civil rights was the preferred lexicon for discussing issues of domestic concern.  Carl’s paper helps us to understand how human rights in the U.S. context became almost uniquely associated with the foreign.  As human rights expanded to encompass more claims in the last forty years, the issue of indigenous rights assumed a prominent role in debates over human rights and cultural relativism.  Lora Wildenthal shows how as The Society for Threatened Peoples in West Germany agitated for indigenous groups throughout the world it became caught up in more local and national issues such as West German debates over ethnic and national identity.  The rise of transnational human rights activism since the 1970s was unprecedented, and Patrick Kelly’s paper analyzes how the Chilean coup of 1973 incited a massive growth in such activism by NGOs, intergovernmental organizations, and solidarity organizations in Europe, Canada, the United States and Latin America.  His paper focuses especially on challenges to the defense of state sovereignty so often invoked by governments in attempt to shield themselves from international criticism, arguing that activism related to the Chilean coup significantly chinked the armor of state sovereignty.    

The issues discussed at this panel will interest not only historians of human rights but more generally those interested in transnationalism, sovereignty, international law, and practitioners of political, intellectual, social, legal, and cultural history.  The panel’s diverse composition shows how historians can learn much from engaging in debates with one another over ideas like human rights that so readily and frequently crisscrossed the globe, enmeshing themselves in local, national and transnational processes.    

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