International Rights Regimes in the Twentieth Century

AHA Session 244
Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Columbia Hall 6 (Washington Hilton)
Samuel Moyn, Harvard University
Keith David Watenpaugh, University of California, Davis

Session Abstract

This panel seeks to contribute to the still contentious debate on the origins of human rights by examining the intersection and divergence of various conceptions of ‘international rights’ over the course of the twentieth century. During the twentieth century the discourse of human rights emerged as a key source of international and national mobilization and disagreement, engendering both grand hopes for social change and crushing disappointments. These ideas continue to influence foreign relations between states, transnational activism, and political revolutions in our contemporary world. Over the last decade, new histories of human rights have enriched our knowledge of the international institutions, popular movements, and intellectual sources of this discourse. These studies have also led to a critical debate regarding the progressive narrative of human rights development. This debate calls into question the connection between Enlightenment-era declarations of natural rights, nineteenth-century humanitarian movements, and the contemporary human rights regime ushered in by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Our panelists reflect the ongoing disagreement about the role of international rights discourse as a progressive or conservative force. For example, in the cases of the League of Nations’ Child Rights Declaration and the European Court of Human Rights, two of our panelists argue that the language of international rights served to bolster conservative, and even Fascist, regimes. In the case of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their 1977 Additional Protocols, on the other hand, controversial new definitions of the ‘international’ served to justify extensions of humanitarian protections to civil and anti-colonial wars, while simultaneously denying protections to other forms of internal conflict. As chair and commentator we have two senior scholars who have made crucial interventions in the historiographical debate over the connection between human rights and other historical conceptions of rights. Our panel also reflects the methodological and disciplinary diversity of current research on the development of rights regimes. In addition to the multi-national archival research reflected in the papers, our panel includes research from a political scientist working on a topic for which some of the major archives are still closed to the public. His research makes use of interviews with individuals involved in the drafting and negotiation of the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions.

The debate over human rights history is more than a question of periodization and origins. It highlights the changing relationship between national sovereignty and international norms within the global system of states, the definition of ‘universal’ among diverse actors in a decolonizing and post-imperial world, and the extent to which international moral shocks and pressures shape states’ perception of national interest. While the language of rights necessarily refers to bodies of law, our interest is less on formal legal codification and more on how the disagreements and debates over proposed rights schemes defined boundaries of inclusion, exclusion, and hierarchy in the international community. These definitions decided life and death for millions of individuals over the course of a century ravaged by both international and internal violence.

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