International Human Rights Groups in the Communist Bloc

AHA Session 231
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Room M104 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Marquis Level)
Barbara B. Walker, University of Nevada, Reno
Barbara B. Walker, University of Nevada, Reno

Session Abstract

This panel will explore the impact of international human rights groups in the Communist bloc during the 1970s and 1980s.  Robert Brier will focus on two symbolic figures of 1970s human rights activism—the prisoner of conscience and the dissident— and the ambivalent effects of human rights language.  On one hand, these two figures provided independent intellectuals in the Soviet bloc with a morally powerful and internationally recognizable identity. But on the other, these identities also depoliticized opposition activists, dissolving their more specific social or political goals into a universalizing narrative of human rights.  This paper will serve as an introduction as it was in the 1970s that international human rights groups first began to play an active role in engendering and supporting opposition within the bloc as a whole.   Siobhan Doucette will present research on the Polish opposition’s utilization of international human rights groups and discourses in their struggle against the regime in the 1980s.  In the mid-1980s, regime opponents formed a number of new human rights groups which actively made contact with international human rights associations in the West as well as in the Communist bloc.  Although underground Amnesty International Newsletters were written and World Human Rights Day letter-writing campaigns organized, Polish activists debated specific demands by international human rights groups; often finding points of contention thus demonstrating the ways in which universal human rights demands could be tailored to, and altered in, specific national contexts.  Beth Kerley will present research focused on the evolution of Soviet establishment elites’ reactions to international human rights groups, from open vilification in the late 1970s to calculated attempts at engagement in the perestroika era through 1991.  As the Cold War context of “ideological struggle” gave way to a more ideologically flexible concern with improving the USSR’s international image, an increased openness to foreign contacts coexisted in Party directives with lingering suspicion of those human rights groups which had historically been most critical of the Soviet government, as well as with continued interest in message control regarding the USSR’s rights record.  Focusing on discussions of rights among mid-level Soviet diplomatic and academic elites, this paper will consider the influence of international rights organizations on shaping proposals for state-sponsored human rights activities in the USSR.  This panel is transnational in focus with its concentration on international groups’ influences across the Communist bloc from the 1970s through 1991.  It provides a glimpse into the diverse ways in which international human rights groups not only empowered regime opponents but also constrained them, along with regime elites.  It also demonstrates some of the ways in which regime opponents, establishment elites, and international associations employed human rights narratives for their own goals.  This panel should therefore be of interest not only to those who focus on East European history and the Cold War but to anyone who is interested in the impact of human rights groups, non-governmental organizations, and others transnational associations on political and social developments in specific locales.

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